Measured solely by policy accomplishments, Donald Trump’s longest-serving cabinet official, Betsy DeVos, was a flop in her four years as secretary of education.
Early on, her efforts to move a federal voucher program through a Republican-controlled Congress more concerned with taxes and deregulation repeatedly fell short. This year, she was forced to abandon a directive ordering states to redirect coronavirus funds to private schools after three federal judges ruled against her.
And significant pieces of Obama-era civil rights guidance that she rescinded — moves meant to protect transgender students, for instance, or address racially disproportionate school discipline — will be immediately restored by the incoming Biden administration.
Though Ms. DeVos has been mostly stymied, both by Trumpism’s policy indifference and progressive opposition, her legacy will still be far-reaching and long-lasting. This is not a result of what she made, but of what she broke: a bipartisan federal consensus around testing and charters that extended from the George H.W. Bush administration through the end of the Obama era.
For progressives, this shift hasn’t necessarily been bad news. In response to Ms. DeVos’s polarizing influence, moderate Democrats including President-elect Joe Biden recommitted to teachers unions and adopted more skeptical positions on school choice that were out of the question just a few years ago. Mr. Biden has pledged to exclude for-profit charter schools from federal funding, and he has proposed making larger investments in public education by using Title I statutes to double federal support for schools serving low-income students.
Yet Ms. DeVos has also elevated the education policy agenda of the far right, giving voice and legitimacy to a campaign to fundamentally dismantle public education. That campaign, pursued for the past few decades only in deep-red states, and often perceived as belonging to the libertarian fringe, has become the de facto agenda of the Republican Party.
So, while it is true that the Biden administration will swiftly reverse President Trump’s executive orders and administrative guidance from the Department of Education, Mr. Biden’s education secretary will still have to contend with extreme ideas that have suddenly entered the mainstream.