Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing in January 2017 made her a universal punchline. When asked about her thoughts on guns in school, she famously pointed to the need to protect students from grizzly bears. When asked about her opinions on exams that measure proficiency versus those that measure growth, she could barely stammer out an answer. In a Republican-majority Senate, the billionaire mega-donor was barely confirmed to her position, a humiliating turn that required Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Two years later, DeVos remains among the least popular Cabinet members in a historically unpopular administration. Yet, somehow, even as her peers dropped like flies — former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — the education secretary has remained standing.
HuffPost spoke with over a dozen people about DeVos’ longevity, including former colleagues at the Department of Education, former co-workers in the advocacy space, and several political opponents who continue to root for her downfall.
For the most part, despite her wild unpopularity, they chalk up DeVos’ success to President Donald Trump’s relative disinterest in education, her comparative lack of ethical conflicts and scandal, and her connections to the evangelical community, a group that serves as an important voting bloc for the president.
But they also point to her wholehearted belief in the righteousness of her agenda and persistence in seeing it through. Many of both her supporters and opponents say they’re not surprised she’s lasted this long, describing her in similar terms ― determined, dedicated, resolute — though vehemently disagreeing on what these traits mean for students.
Her boosters and detractors seem to agree: Whether people hate or love what she’s doing, she’s doing it because she truly believes in it.
A Confirmation Hearing Disaster And Troubles In Trumpland
DeVos’ confirmation hearing earned her a portrayal by Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live” — and a message from the White House detailing the inadequacy of her performance, according to a former administration official.
But since then, Trump has mostly stayed out of her way, whether out of disinterest or distraction. DeVos has similarly worked to avoid conflict with Trump and the pitfalls of self-promotion, quietly pressing forward with her education agenda.
She has unsuccessfully worked to drum up interest in a federal school choice program and she’s slashed guidance that promotes civil rights in schools. She has moved to give colleges — especially for-profit ones with sometimes fraudulent practices — more freedom from oversight, despite a litany of judicial challenges.
“She keeps doing what she said she was gonna do, what she’s always done and what she was hired to do,” said Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, who has crossed paths with DeVos over the years as an advocate for school choice.
Her clashes with the president have generally been infrequent and insignificant: DeVos heard from the White House early on when she issued a botched statement calling HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities formed in response to systemic discrimination ― pioneers in school choice. When she flubbed a “60 Minutes” interview in March 2018, she also heard from her boss, said a former staffer.
DeVos has mostly navigated her way through the bumps, though — even when it comes to larger issues of policy and communication — publicly carrying the president’s water.
“She keeps doing what she said she was gonna do, what she’s always done and what she was hired to do.”
When Trump charged DeVos with running the Federal School Safety Commission after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, he made her the face of an initiative she had relatively little say over, sources told HuffPost.
To DeVos’ dismay, the White House used the commission to emphasize schools’ ability to arm personnel. DeVos didn’t necessarily disagree with such proposals ― she is dedicated to the idea of local control and allowing districts to make such choices for themselves ― but she didn’t see the need to highlight such an option. And then, as the president waffled on whether the commission should look at potential age restrictions on firearms, she was left to look foolish, at one point describing the commission as a group that would study school shootings but not guns.
DeVos most publicly pushed back against the president in March after he took credit for saving proposed cuts to the Special Olympics. Until that point, DeVos had toed the administration’s line over the cuts, even amid widespread public outrage. The cuts had been proposed every year — and were most recently pushed by Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting White House chief of staff — despite DeVos’ opposition.
“I am pleased and grateful the president and I see eye-to-eye on this issue, and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant,” DeVos said in a statement at the time. “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”
In response to this article, DeVos’ office emphasized her “strong working relationship with President Trump.”
“It’s evident in their collaborative efforts to protect First Amendment rights on college campuses, make American STEM education (and the future STEM workforce) the envy of the world, their work on school safety, and most of all, their partnership on the Education Freedom Scholarships Proposal,” spokesperson Angela Morabito said.
The Education Department denied there had been any conflict between DeVos and the White House on the Federal School Safety Commission, emphasizing that the secretary believes “every school and community has its own unique needs, one size does not fit all, and the people closest to the problem must be empowered to solve it.”
Eliza Byard, president of LGBTQ civil rights group GLSEN, recalls DeVos painfully pushing school choice during a meeting with advocates of transgender youth, right after the Education Department rescinded guidance designed to protect these students. Amid a discussion about safety concerns for these children, DeVos awkwardly promoted school choice, despite the fact that private schools in voucher programs are in fact legally allowed to ban LGBTQ students — and many of them do.
“The thing that is painful and alarming and infuriating about that is there were already things in place solving those problems and they were ripped apart,” Byard said.
Indeed, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, uses harsh words to describe DeVos. But there’s one word Weingarten won’t use: chameleon.
“She is who she is. She doesn’t pretend to be pro-public education, she doesn’t pretend to be pro-student. She is pro-privatization, she is pro-big business, she is pro-the student lender industry,” said Weingarten, who leads a teachers’ union of about 1.7 million members that recently sued DeVos over alleged mismanagement of a student loan forgiveness program.
But those who have worked with DeVos both inside and outside the Education Department maintain that while she might have tunnel vision, her motives on this issue are pure. They describe her as driven by altruism rather than opportunism, a trait that may separate her from her peers in the Trump administration. Whether misguided or not, she truly sees choice as a prerequisite for meaningful educational improvement that could especially benefit low-income children of color.
“I think Betsy DeVos has the best of intentions. Her desire to expand choice, especially for poor kids and kids of color, comes from a big heart and interest in seeing kids in America do better,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
“To the degree she’s been cast as some kind of villain, that’s not who she is. You might think she has bad ideas, but she doesn’t have bad intentions.”
Deliberate and Methodical
Former employees and associates say they understand why it’s easy to see DeVos as a villain. But they work to rationalize her actions, painting her motivations and personality in plain terms.
When she takes steps to protect at times predatory for-profit colleges ― well, she thought the Obama administration treated these institutions unduly harshly and that the free market should be left to work its magic unencumbered, regardless of the casualties. (Courts have consistently ruled against DeVos in several of her attempts to roll back protections for victims in these cases, in one instance calling her actions “arbitrary and capricious.”)
“She is who she is. She doesn’t pretend to be pro-public education, she doesn’t pretend to be pro-student. She is pro-privatization, she is pro-big business, she is pro-the student lender industry.”
“She’s not an outwardly warm and fuzzy type person ― that doesn’t mean she’s cold and distant ― but it certainly doesn’t mean she approaches her job or issues that come across her desk as: How can we screw up students’ lives today?” said one former education staffer.
And, according to a former employee, her most recent wave of scandals — which resulted in her being held in contempt of court after the Department of Education continued to collect money from defrauded students despite a ban on doing so — was more of an accidental snafu in a cumbersome system than any type of sinister DeVos-led plot. (The judge in that case previously said she was “astounded, really, just really astounded” at the department’s “sheer scale of violations.”)
“Pretty simply, it was nothing more complicated than an operational glitch,” said A. Wayne Johnson, who was the Department of Education’s chief strategy and transformation officer before resigning in October and endorsing a mass cancellation of student debt. Wayne described DeVos as an “inspirational leader,” and “the best example of what a committed public servant is about.”
Her decisions are characteristically deliberate and methodical. Early in the administration, when DeVos sparred with Trump and Sessions over the decision to repeal joint Department of Education and Department of Justice guidance designed to protect transgender students, it was less out of concern for those students than concern for a lack of process, sources said.
While former employees suspect that DeVos may have ultimately decided to rescind the guidance — which called on schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that aligned with their gender identity — she would have preferred to have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders first.
They maintain that she’s not personally homophobic or racist — despite slashing a number of pieces of guidance designed to protect vulnerable groups — just disdainful of federal overreach. When a group of Harvard students unfurled a sign calling her a white supremacist during a September 2017 speech, she was particularly hurt, they said. (In response to a question about this incident, Education Department spokesperson Morabito said DeVos wants to focus on students, “not on herself, and certainly not on personal attacks that have no basis in truth.”)
But these depictions are a far cry from how her detractors describe DeVos and the impact of her actions.
“She never pretended she knew anything about schools or public schools,” said Weingarten. “[The Department] hasn’t dealt with the student loan crisis. Instead, they’ve just walked away from obligations to students, or they’ve made it worse.”
Others wonder if, when it comes to school choice, DeVos is actively hurting the cause she most wants to promote. There’s scant expectation she will succeed in pushing any type of federal program ― an initiative at odds with her love of small government. Using her bully pulpit as education secretary to promote school choice seems like her greatest hope for expanding programs around the country, but DeVos is an unpopular Cabinet member in a historically unpopular administration. School choice once drummed up bipartisan support, but DeVos has helped make the issue radioactive for centrists and Democrats, Petrilli says.
After writing a letter of support to Congress upon DeVos’ nomination, he now wishes she would just step down.
“She seems like someone who is determined to show grit and perseverance and demonstrate she was going to follow through [with the job.] I think she deserves a lot of credit for that,” he said. “My only argument is two years is plenty to demonstrate that. She could have stepped down after the midterm election and felt quite good.”
DeVos’ office vehemently denies that the issue of school choice has been in any way harmed by her tenure, saying that it continues to gain popularity across states.
“The only vocal national opponents of education freedom are seeking the endorsement of the teachers union,” said Morabito. “They are the ones who ought to be asked to explain why the issue has suddenly become divisive.”
“Secretary DeVos is dedicated to advancing Education Freedom,” Morabito continued. “She has worked tirelessly to keep the focus on the cause ― allowing every student in America to access a high-quality education that’s right for them.”
But her last day also can’t come soon enough for advocates like Byard, who says DeVos has already perpetuated so much harm in the everyday lives of vulnerable students.
“I wish something would get through to her,” Byard said. “We’re parents and we’re people who care deeply about children. And we’re scared.”
This article has been updated to include comments from an Education Department spokesperson.