Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is exhibiting some noteworthy resistance to the education agenda of President Trump. One indication of this disposition is her insistence that the Every Student Succeeds Act did away with Common Core over a year ago, and her declaration that the federal government properly plays a role in approving states’ education plans. Both of these positions contradict commitments that were central to Trump’s agenda.
The most recent evidence of renegade tendencies appeared this week with the issue of privacy rights in public schools. Last May the Obama administration issued a legally questionable “Dear Colleague” letter, which pressured schools to open up girls’ restrooms, locker rooms, and probably sports teams to boys. According to press reports, DeVos disagreed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s position that this “guidance” should be rescinded. DeVos apparently argued for at least retaining the privacy-threatening policy until expiration of a lengthy notice-and-comment period (a procedure that was ignored when the guidance was issued).
Trump, reportedly, sided with Sessions. The administration thus effectively rescinded the guidance in a court filing in a transgender lawsuit. Sessions issued a statement that “Congress, state legislatures, and local governments are in a position to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing this issue. The Department of Justice remains committed to the proper interpretation and enforcement of Title IX and to its protections for all students, including LGBTQ students, from discrimination, bullying, and harassment.” Supporting the president’s decision (begrudgingly?), DeVos stated, “This is an issue best solved at the state and local level.”
For all the uproar on the Left about DeVos and her “conservative” tendencies, the evidence has not supported that conclusion. For one thing, she and her advocacy organizations have long supported Common Core (though she reversed her position when she was nominated to be Secretary). And with respect to the LGBT issue, The New York Times reported in January that she has been very supportive of same-sex marriage, urging prominent Michigan Republicans to sign an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in favor of redefining marriage. She even weighed in on behalf of a same-sex couple who wanted to adopt a baby. (One half of that couple enthused that DeVos [like Obama] has “evolved” on the issue.)
This evolution was apparently underway as early as 2004, when she was reportedly “lukewarm” about a Michigan ballot initiative to protect traditional marriage. Unlike some of their family members, she and her husband did not contribute to the successful effort.
Nor is DeVos new to disputes about men in women’s restrooms. The Times article quoted other sources who described her intercession for a man who wanted to use the women’s restroom at a Michigan GOP call center. Other women at the center were upset (much like girls who find themselves showering next to boys in the school locker room) but DeVos was unmoved.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Trump administration that DeVos’s sympathies lay with retaining the Obama transgender mandate – even though that policy misinterpreted federal law, defied biological reality, and imposed Orwellian speech mandates in the name of fairness to transgender students. Trump has made his view clear that the issue of restroom privacy was a “perfect” example of states’ rights. But if it hadn’t been for the forcefulness of Sessions on the matter, Trump’s policy correction might have been squelched in the halls of DeVos’s Department of Education.
Conservatives who supported Trump during the campaign were alarmed when a person with Betsy DeVos’s history was nominated to be Education Secretary – and they made their objections known — to no avail. But they have every right to expect that now that she’s on board, she will carry out the president’s agenda, not her own.
This, apparently, is what she ultimately decided to do with respect to the transgender-guidance issue. But what happens when other, less public issues arise in which her opinion differs from her boss’s? In the daily operation of the Department, when faced with opportunities to either minimize federal control or keep it in place – and when there’s not another Cabinet official present to alert the President and hold her feet to the fire – which way will she go?
The last thing Trump needs in the launch of his presidency is a Cabinet member who may be more wedded to her agenda than to his. Conservatives are forewarned – they must be vigilant in monitoring Betsy DeVos. The president must do so as well, or else the fulfillment of his campaign promises will sink in the swamp.