Ivanka Trump, wearing a blue lace dress, beamed, hugged, high-fived and took a group selfie. Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, smiled and chatted with the boys and girls, too. But only one of them looked like she could have been a children’s TV presenter – and it was not Betsy DeVos.
Trump and DeVos read the book Rosie Revere, Engineer to a group of around 40 six- to 10-year-olds – most of them African American – who had travelled on Tuesday from a YMCA boys and girls club in Washington to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, a short walk from the Trump international hotel.
“There’s a slide that I don’t think you want to go down this summer?” DeVos told the children. “You’ve got it! You do not want to go on the summer slide and slide back on your reading, do you?”
The education secretary, who has four children and five grandchildren, did everything expected of her, but could not help looking a little stilted and joyless next to Ivanka who – even as her husband Jared Kushner was testifying to the House intelligence committee about Russia – was easy and ebullient. DeVos looked on as the president’s daughter was mobbed, dished out enthusiastic hugs and proclaimed: “I need a hi-five!”
But while the Trumps steal the limelight and consume attention on issues from Russia to healthcare, it is DeVos, America’s 11th education secretary, who is viewed by many in the sector as its most dangerous and destructive since the post was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979. DeVos, a devout Christian, stands accused of quietly privatising schools, rescinding discrimination guidelines and neutering her own department’s civil rights office. Along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, she is said to be at the tip of the spear of Trump’s illiberal agenda.
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation thinktank in Washington, said: “There’s been inadequate attention paid to the ways in which DeVos is rolling back civil rights protections. There would be more outcry if there wasn’t so much to be outraged about on a million other issues every day as well.”
What DeVos – a 59-year-old entrepreneur, philanthropist and former chair of the Michigan Republican party – lacks in expertise or charisma, she makes up for in money, something always guaranteed to impress property tycoon Trump. Her billionaire family has been active in the Republican party for decades, especially as donors bankrolling candidates. Her husband, Dick, is an heir to the Amway direct sales fortune while her brother, Erik Prince, is the founder of Blackwater, a private security contractor notorious for its operations in Iraq.
DeVos – who once called traditional public school districts a “dead end” – is accused of defunding and destabilising public education in Michigan by bankrolling school choice initiatives. Now, to the chagrin of teachers’ unions, she is trying to apply the same ideas to the nation, championing privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools and voucher programmes that enable families to take tax dollars from the public education system to the private sector.
The first mention of DeVos’s name at the American Federation of Teachers conference at a hotel in Washington last week prompted spontaneous boos and hisses from delegates holding “public school proud” signs. Randi Weingarten, president of the union that represents 1.6 million American teachers and other workers, delivered a fiery speech in which she branded the secretary “a public school denier”.
She said: “Take the word ‘choice’. You hear it all the time these days. School ‘choice’. Betsy DeVos uses it in practically every sentence. You could show her, as I did, an award-winning robotics programme, and she’d say, ‘What about choice?’ which she actually said. You could probably say ‘Good morning, Betsy,’ and she’d say, ‘That’s my choice.’ She must love restaurant buffets.”
Choice is a loaded word in US education circles. Opponents point to the Jim Crow era when, following the supreme court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling that outlawed racial segregation in schools, white communities used public funds – in the form of vouchers – to relocate their children to private schools. Black students were left behind in public schools that lacked proper resources. Prince Edward County in Virginia even closed all its public schools for five years.
Trump’s proposed budget would cut the education department by $9bn while funding a $1.4bn school choice initiative. Among those to be axed is an Obama-era $12m grant scheme intended to help local districts devise ways to boost socioeconomic diversity within their schools.
Justin Reid, director of African American programmes at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, said: “I know there’s a new push at state level to enact voucher programmes. People should take time to look at the history: things could repeat themselves. You could see an exodus of middle-income families from the public school system, so it’s segregation not only by race but income group.”
Campaigners say that private schools, not parents, ultimately make the choice of whether to admit a child, and this opens the door to bias. DeVos provoked anger at a congressional hearing when she declined to rule out giving funds to private schools that discriminate against students. Private schools also have fewer obligations to be transparent about their funding and test results.
Weingarten had hoped to make her case to DeVos in April when they agreed to meet in a county that strongly supported Trump in the last election, but at a school – Van Wert high school in rural Ohio – that proudly champions public education. Weingarten recalled: “I thought she learned a lot that day, but she hasn’t acted on one thing that she learned, and instead it is as if she ignored and denied what she learned. It’s as if there was just remarkable indifference. So she’d shake her head and listen to people and then the budget would be cut.”
Weingarten has only spoken to DeVos once since then: they tried to set up another school visit but then DeVos cancelled. “So my view is she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt any more because the actions that she’s taken since have been so negative to all students and to equity,” Weingarten said in an interview, during which her voice rose with anger and she banged the table with her fist.
“She believes in choice, so why would you destabilise and defund the public schools that 90% of kids go to? Even if you believe in things that I, ideologically, do not believe work, why aren’t you doing the other things? Why are you cutting the budget? Why are you not fighting against that? How could you cut every single summer school programme, every single after-school programme? How could you stand with a [White House budget director Mick] Mulvaney, who says that hunger programmes don’t work? How dare you do that and think that you actually represent the kids that grow up in McDowell County, West Virginia?”
Along with her penchant for “choice” and private schools, there are grave concerns over DeVos’s commitment to civil rights protections. A recent essay published by the Center for American Progress thinktank was headlined: “Betsy DeVos: secretary of discrimination?” In one of her first acts as education secretary, it noted, DeVos rescinded guidance that clarified transgender students’ rights to use bathrooms according to their stated gender identity.
In another worrying sign last week, Candice Jackson, DeVos’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, claimed that 90% of college campus sexual assault claims stem from both participants being drunk; Jackson later apologised. At the same time 20 state attorneys general wrote to DeVos expressing alarm at reports that she is preparing to gut protections for survivors of sexual assault on campuses.
Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, said: “We are quite disgusted with what looks like an attempt to dismantle the civil rights department of the department of education. I think she believes, along with Trump, that there should be no department of education. I would not be surprised if, in the next year, they try to get rid of it.”
Observers say that, in speeches and other interactions, DeVos – who herself went to a private Christian school – seems unsure of her brief outside a near obsession with vouchers, and that could ultimately make her less effective.
Kahlenberg said she had asked a question of DeVos at an event: “She appeared to be the proverbial deer caught in the headlights and kept falling back on pat replies that don’t answer the question.
“As a progressive, I think it’s very fortunate that President Trump has chosen such an ill-informed and inefficient spokesperson for radical privatisation ideas. She squeezed by in her Senate confirmation and is seen as fairly toxic by lots of public school advocates – whether Democratic or Republican. So for those of us opposed to privatisation, she’s the best thing I could hope for.”
Whereas cabinet members such as Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis are regularly at the White House, DeVos rarely makes the trip from her department headquarters in the Lyndon Baines Johnson building, a modernist box dubbed “one of the most banal buildings in the nation’s capital”. Trump seems content to leave her to her own devices, as he does with other cabinet members such as Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary.
Neil Sroka, spokesman for the liberal pressure group Democracy for America, said: “Trump doesn’t care about education, much like he doesn’t care about healthcare in any meaningful way. Betsy DeVos has been given a blank cheque to do pretty much whatever she wants. And what she is doing in the department of education is the dream of the rightwing ideologues who work on education policy.”
Critics point to DeVos’s record in Michigan, where she used her wealth to push legislators to defund public education in favour of for-profit charter schools. Students’ test results have plummeted as a consequence, they argue.
Sroka, who is based in Detroit, said: “What’s so amazing is that Betsy DeVos and the DeVos family have almost singlehandedly destroyed public schools in the state of Michigan. They’ve gone from some of the best in the country to among the worst in the region. It’s mind-boggling that anyone would put her in charge of education policy.”
He added: “There’s almost no one else in Trump’s cabinet that has raised so much animosity from not just progressives but across the American public. She and Jeff Sessions are the two bêtes noire of Trump’s cabinet. They are on the tips of everyone’s tongues.”