A Look At Betsy DeVos' Role During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Jul 14, 2020
Originally published on July 14, 2020 7:10 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Trump says he wants America's schools to reopen and quickly. He's undercut guidance from the CDC, calling it impractical. He's even threatened to cut funding for schools that don't reopen. And supporting this push is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Here she is speaking last week at a meeting of the Coronavirus Task Force.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETSY DEVOS: Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools should reopen. It's simply a matter of how. They must fully open, and they must be fully operational.

MCCAMMON: For more on DeVos' role in this pandemic, we're joined by NPR's Cory Turner, who's been covering her since she became secretary.

Hi, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hello.

MCCAMMON: So, Cory, let's recap. How did DeVos initially respond to this pandemic?

TURNER: Yeah. So back in March, she seemed largely supportive of state and local school leaders' decision to close schools. To help, she waived federal testing requirements, which was a pretty big deal at the time. And she did not push some big federal plan to tell schools how to teach remotely because she doesn't like big federal plans. And that's really still the case.

All these federal reopening recommendations are, as you said, coming from the CDC. You have to remember that DeVos has long been an advocate for local control of schools and giving families choices, including charter schools, virtual schools, private school vouchers. Here she is back in December of 2016 giving a speech in her native Michigan talking about how to unlock children's true potential.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEVOS: It won't be a giant bureaucracy or a federal department. Nope. The answer isn't bigger government. The answer is local control. It's listening to parents, and it's giving more choices.

(CHEERING)

TURNER: So, obviously, there is some real daylight there between that DeVos and the one that's now threatening to punish schools if they don't reopen.

MCCAMMON: There is. And, Cory, you said that Secretary DeVos came into this job as a big champion of online-only or virtual schools. But now that lots of public schools are essentially virtual, she's arguing kids are better off in buildings. How do you make sense of that?

TURNER: Yeah. I think this is one of the most fascinating through lines of this story. She is right, of course, that kids are generally better off in school buildings, academically, emotionally. But before DeVos was picked to be secretary, she wasn't just a fan of virtual schools. She was actually an investor. When she was confirmed, she told lawmakers, quote, "high-quality virtual charter schools provide valuable options to families."

So, you know, in helping President Trump make the point that schools need to physically reopen, DeVos is walking a really fine line. In fact, things got a little awkward last week when President Trump tweeted that, quote, "virtual learning has proven to be terrible" - all caps. That is needless to say one tweet of the president's that DeVos did not retweet.

MCCAMMON: Surely not. How do you reconcile then the earlier DeVos who championed virtual learning and local control with the secretary of education who is now threatening to cut off federal funding for schools that don't do what she wants?

TURNER: Yeah. You can feel the dissonance when she says, you know, schools should fully reopen and she trusts local officials to make the right choice. I think part of it, obviously, is she is toeing the line for President Trump as a Cabinet secretary. But she is being consistent in other ways by using the moment to boost the interests of private schools and promote the idea of letting families use public dollars to pay for private schools.

You know, for example, Trump's threat to defund public schools that don't reopen has already morphed just in the past week. Now DeVos is suggesting families, you know, be allowed to take that federal money and spend it in private schools that do reopen, a kind of pandemic voucher. I should say, though, it's not clear how or if she could do that any more than Trump could defund schools in the first place.

DeVos is also being sued by several states because she's trying to force schools to use more of their CARES Act relief money to pay for services to help students in private schools. So, you know, while the threat to wield federal power feels very un-DeVos-like (ph) she is clearly using the moment to promote the things that have always been important to her.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thanks.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.