DETROIT – Betsy DeVos, the West Michigan political force who rose to education secretary, late Thursday became the latest high-profile resignation among presidential appointees, saying President Donald Trump incited a mob that invaded the Capitol on Wednesday.
“We should be highlighting and celebrating your Administration’s many accomplishments on behalf of the American people,” DeVos wrote in a letter to the president. “Instead we are left to clean up the mess caused by violent protesters overrunning the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to undermine the people’s business. That behavior was unconscionable for our country. There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me.
“Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us. I believe we each have a moral obligation to exercise good judgment and model the behavior they would emulate. They must know from us that America is greater than what transpired yesterday.”
Earlier in the day, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao resigned for similar reasons, saying the rioting “has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.” Chao and DeVos joined a string of officials to quit the White House Thursday, including aide Mick Mulvaney.
For decades DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, were a dominant force in Michigan politics. Betsy DeVos had a long track record of funding education related policies in Michigan, especially around school choice.
She was a lightning rod for controversy from the beginning of her term. The Senate split 50-50 on her confirmation and Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to get her into her position. She drew headlines even in her confirmation hearing. It was there she first became fodder for late-night TV skits by suggesting, in response to a question from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, as to whether firearms should be banned in all schools, that they might be needed in some schools to protect students from grizzly bears.
DeVos recapped what she saw as her accomplishments over her four years in office.
“Leading the U.S. Department of Education has given me an exceptional opportunity to advocate on behalf of the forgotten students the traditional system leaves behind,” she wrote.
She said she expanded school choice and “restored the proper federal role by returning to power to states, communities, educators and parents.”
DeVos also trumpeted her advocacy to reopen schools during COVID-19 shutdowns.
“I know with certainty that history will show we were correct in our repeated urging of and support for schools reopening this year and getting all of America’s students back to learning. Millions are being denied meaningful access to education right now, in no small part because of the union bosses who control so much of the traditional system.”
Earlier this month, she told Education Department employees to continue to resist any policies that they believe could hurt students with a new administration preparing to take over.
“Many of you know well that most everything in this town, when it comes to education, is focused on schools – not students,” DeVos told agency employees in a virtual meeting. “So, let me leave you with this last plea: Resist. Be the resistance against a familiar force that will distract you from doing what’s right for students.”
DeVos came under sharp criticism from Democrats and others, however, for pushing policies that are seen as undermining traditional public schools to benefit private and charter schools, as well as rescinding rules to curtail what was earlier described as disproportionate discipline of Black elementary and secondary school students and restricting qualifications for student loan relief. She also drew heavy criticism for her rewrite of how colleges and universities had to handle reports of sexual assaults on campus, mandating a court-like hearing and limiting what colleges have to investigate.
Her legacy is split.
“From those of us on the inside, she’ll be remembered as someone who made it harder to advance at the state and local level many of the policies she cared about,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes charter schools and more conservative education policy.
“She made it harder for Democrats who cared about charter schools and accountability testing to voice support for those ideas. … That’s the tragedy of Betsy DeVos. She actually hurt the very causes she cared so much about.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was succinct in her response to DeVos’ resignation – “Good riddance.”
Her supporters see it differently. At the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, Education Policy Director Rick Hess said she shattered any notion that a school choice advocate couldn’t serve as secretary.
“Whatever the short-term effects on public opinion or the policy debate, this may come to be seen as validating the idea that the department is also there to serve system ‘outsiders,’ ” he said.
It’s doubtful that many of DeVos’ signature initiatives will remain in place, given that President-elect Joe Biden – who has nominated Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, a former elementary school teacher, to succeed DeVos – has promised to undo most or all of them.
Prior to her nomination by Trump, DeVos was best known in Michigan, along with her husband, former Amway head and unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee Dick DeVos, for funding Republican causes and for having served as the party’s chairwoman, as well as for philanthropic causes to which the family gave millions.
The daughter of the founder of a west Michigan auto supplier – and the sister of Erik Prince, the former Navy Seal who founded Blackwater, a controversial overseas security contractor – Betsy DeVos and her family also spent decades fighting for school of choice in Michigan and elsewhere, chairing the American Federation for Children, a national school choice advocacy group in Washington, and serving with other organizations and boards committed to the cause. But while she has been a strong voice insisting that school choice has shown results, the evidence has been mixed, in Detroit and elsewhere.
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