Betsy DeVos at Hillsdale suggests her policy changes will be difficult to undo

Kayla Ruble
Special to The Detroit News

Hillsdale — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos emphasized Monday at a gathering in Michigan that school of choice will remain key if President Donald Trump is reelected and she remains on his Cabinet.

DeVos, at an education round table at Hillsdale College, also added this salvo to any incoming administration if Trump is defeated in November: a new education secretary would find it difficult to reverse policy changes she has made.

“We have been very methodical about our rulemaking and regulatory moves to do everything according to law, so that if there are changes, they have to be done by law as well," she said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asks a question about charter schools during a roundtable discussion.

She cited Title IX provisions added under her leadership as increasing protections for those accused of sexual assault on college campuses. DeVos said a new administration could not invalidate new, controversial policies for those accused of sexual assault.

In May, the Education Department finalized campus sexual assault rules that bolster the rights of the accused, reduce legal liabilities for schools and colleges, and narrow the scope of cases schools will be required to investigate.

The change DeVos announced reshapes the way the nation’s schools respond to complaints of sexual misconduct. It is meant to replace policies from the Obama administration that DeVos previously revoked, saying they pressured schools to deny the rights of accused students.

Critics of the new rules argue that some provisions allow perpetrators to block "damning" evidence against them. Critics also object to a mandate that both accusers and the accused undergo live cross-examination, saying that can be traumatic for sexual assault victims.

DeVos said after the gathering that her agenda in a second Trump term would continue to focus on school choice and a federal tax credit to broaden choices.

" ... Really at helping to advance school choice, both at the federal level and via state initiatives, because again, most of the resources and most of the policy is actually driven at the state level," DeVos said. The goal with a federal tax credit would be to really prime the pump and give a lot of rocket fuel to what states are doing.”

Before taking office, DeVos spent decades as an advocate for charter schools and voucher programs in Michigan and elsewhere. As secretary, she has been credited with helping states expand programs but has struggled to make headway on federal legislation.

She sat center stage Monday at Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise Auditorium in Hillsdale, flanked by students and educators discussing the classical education model promoted by the college and its charter school arm.

The event was part of a nationwide tour of “Education Freedom” roundtables DeVos has participated in across the country in recent weeks. 

The meetings serve as a complement to a proposal DeVos is promoting called the Education Freedom Scholarship Initiative, which would establish a $5 billion federal tax credit that states could opt into, allowing school districts to “augment or create” school choice programs.

DeVos said the tax credit, if passed by Congress, would be added to the funding already given to a state that chooses to opt-in.

The money would help create choice for students, including options like technical training programs, advanced courses, scholarships to support expenses for homeschooling or even education pods that have popped up during the pandemic, she said.

DeVos said the proposed tax credit "absolutely" could be used for private schools, a move likely to incite critics who would rather bolster traditional public schools.

Her talk came nearly two months after a California federal judge put a temporary stop to a U.S. Department of Education rule that would require public school districts to share coronavirus relief funds with private school students, citing how it would harm at least two Michigan school districts. 

The rule misinterpreted language in the CARES Act to give nonpublic schools a greater share of the funding, resulting in at at least $16 million of the federal to be diverted from Michigan public schools to the state's 700 non-public schools, according to a group of state attorney generals that included Michigan's Dana Nessel. 

After the coalition of states filed suit July 7 against DeVos, U.S. District Judge James Donato granted a preliminary injunction, halting DeVos' rule temporarily because the language of the CARES Act was "familiar and uncomplicated, to say the least."

DeVos, in a keynote speech to the college Monday night, touched again on schools of choice and how the pandemic has reshaped learning. She said the COVID-19 crisis has "laid bare" the challenges facing education in America.

"Parents are more aware than ever before how and what their children are, or are not, learning," she said. "And far too many of them are stuck with no choices, no help and no way forward."

DeVos sought to portray education challenges arising from the pandemic as a problem of choice, not just between virtual or in-person learning, but of choices between public, charter and private schools. 

Associated Press contributed.