U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos resigns in the wake of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol fueled by President Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud. On this week’s Federal Flash, we’ll look back at her controversial legacy and look ahead to how Democrats’ wins in the Georgia Senate races will affect education in the new Congress and new administration in 2021.
Secretary Devos’s Resignation
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos resigned in protest the day after a violent mob of President Trump’s supporters breached the U.S. Capitol, disrupting certification of the Electoral College and resulting in the death of five people and numerous injuries. In her resignation letter, she noted that “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 we hope they would emulate.”
At the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), it is too little, too late. Children have been watching President Trump for four years. As our CEO and President Deborah Delisle said in her response to last week’s insurrection, “The people who acted so repugnantly …, and those who support and encourage them, are destroying our country, and we must do everything in our power to make sure they do not win.”
Secretary DeVos had the power to stand against the president’s reckless, immoral behavior long ago, but chose not to act. Our reaction to her eleventh-hour change of heart? DeVos “stayed quiet while her administration locked children in cages and openly supported White supremacists and dangerous conspiracy theories. The time for her to stand up against President Trump was long ago, not two weeks before her gig was up.”
Instead, Secretary DeVos oversaw the dismantling of the agency she was tapped to lead, including its division tasked with protecting students’ civil rights and ending racial disparities in education. She left schools to fend for themselves against a global pandemic. She failed to exercise even basic oversight and guidance over implementation of federal laws, including the Every Student Succeeds Act, and advocated for diverting federal funding for public schools to private schools.
At All4Ed, we look forward to January 20, when we can begin to restore the U.S. Department of Education’s mission to help ensure every child has the opportunity to thrive and we will work alongside the new secretary to dismantle systems of oppression and tackle long-standing inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Georgia Elects Democratic Senators
Speaking of the new education secretary, the election of Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock leaves the U. S. Senate split 50-50, with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris holding the tie vote. Notably, Warnock—the pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church once led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—will become the first Black senator from the state of Georgia.
With Democrats controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, Dr. Miguel Cardona likely faces a relatively swift and straightforward confirmation process for education secretary—enabling him to begin the work of rebuilding the agency, overseeing federal stimulus funds, and supporting students during the COVID-19 crisis as soon as possible. His confirmation will be shepherded by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who will take over as chairwoman of the education committee after serving as its ranking member since 2015. There will be other changes to the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee as well, with the retirements of Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) and with Doug Jones (D-AL) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) both losing their reelection bids.
What can we expect with Democrats in control? The first item of business will be the confirmation of Dr. Cardona and we don’t expect any major hiccups. The confirmation process will give us early insights into the priorities of the new administration, but real details won’t be available for another several weeks, when the White House releases its budget request.
Even with unified government, Democrats won’t be able pass every item on their policy wish list. First, there’s diversity in the Democratic caucus, so coming to agreement can be difficult. Even more important, although Democrats took control of the Senate with fifty members plus Harris’s tie-breaking vote, most legislation requires sixty votes because of the filibuster, not a simple majority. So we expect to see attempts at bipartisanship in the Senate, particularly in the early days of this session.
This likely will include a continued focus on the COVID-19 response. K–12 education received $54 billion in the COVID-19 relief bill that passed just before the new year. That was a good start, but not enough to address state and local budget deficits, the homework gap, and students’ learning loss. Both Democrats leading the education committees—Senator Murray and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA)—are very concerned about the pandemic’s impact on students’ academic and emotional well-being and will be working to address it. Additional funds could be provided through the regular process or through budget reconciliation, which allows for faster consideration of certain policies.
We also expect a strong emphasis on educational equity, including school finance, school climate, and the school-to-prison pipeline. With Democrats leading the Federal Communications Commission, we anticipate several proposals to close the homework gap. In sum, we expect to see a steady stream of legislation, guidance, and regulation on all of these issues, with many opportunities to weigh in and champion strong policies for kids.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the January 11 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email email@example.com.
Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.