DeVos tells staffers to 'resist' change under Biden

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
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Outgoing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told career staff at her department to "resist" a change in focus under the Biden administration, according to an audio recording obtained by Politico. 

DeVos, who is from the Grand Rapids area, urged employees during a virtual meeting Tuesday to "be the resistance" when the new administration takes over in January, noting that many staffers will "stick" with the department through the coming transition.

"Let me leave you with this last plea: Resist. Be the resistance against forces that will derail you from doing what’s right for students. In everything you do, please put students first — always," DeVos said, according to Politico.

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

DeVos' use of "resist" employs the term that liberals have long used in regard to President Donald Trump's agenda. 

A spokeswoman for DeVos said Wednesday the Politico report took the secretary's remarks out of context and was "misleading and missed the point."

"The secretary urged the staff to always put students first, and resist anything that distracts from that mission. Too many in Washington for too long have put the needs of adults and the education ‘system’ first," spokeswoman Angela Morabito said. 

"Secretary DeVos worked tirelessly for four years to reorient the conversation around students, especially disadvantaged students, and she urged everyone to keep students at the center of every decision."

Politico also reported that Phil Rosenfelt has been selected by the Trump administration to serve as acting secretary of education in coming weeks.

Rosenfelt is the agency's deputy general counsel and previously was acting secretary for a short time before DeVos' confirmation by the Senate in 2017. Morabito did not answer questions about the Rosenfelt report and whether DeVos will leave office before Jan. 20.

DeVos told the staffers at Tuesday's virtual meeting that her goal "in everything we accomplished was to do what’s right for students,” and said that “four years later, it’s still my focus, and it’s still my hope for all of you."

Politico reported that DeVos named among her major achievements the department's overhaul of Title IX rules governing sexual assault and misconduct on campus — rules the agency finalized in May. 

DeVos has warned that a new education secretary under President-elect Joe Biden would find it difficult to reverse the policy changes she has made at the department.

“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," DeVos said at an education roundtable at Hillsdale College in October.

Biden's agenda for education reform includes reversing some of the DeVos-era policies including the Title IX rules, but those regulatory changes took time — nearly three years under DeVos. 

Before her role at the Department of Education, DeVos spent decades as an advocate for charter schools, school choice and voucher programs in Michigan and around the country.

The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party is credited with taking steps to encourage states to expand school choice programs, but she has not achieved any broad federal legislation in this sphere during her tenure.

DeVos has not announced plans for after she leaves office in January, but had previously suggested she might not stay on for a second term were Trump to win re-election. 

She has slammed how schools and governors including Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer are responding to COVID-19. 

“We’ve seen the devastating results of kids either out of school and attempting remote learning for months on end, and some of them not even engaging at all,” DeVos told The Detroit News last week. 

She expressed frustration that many children are being barred from the classroom.

“The science indicated months ago that kids being in school was the place for them, and yet the politics were played by the teachers unions to keep the brakes on, and it's the kids who are the poorest and most vulnerable who are being hurt the most," she said.

Biden has not announced his nominee to lead the Department of Education but a top contender is reportedly Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association. 

Other possible nominees cited by the Associated Press include Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Schools; and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, who was the National Teacher of the Year in 2016.

DeVos expressed concern that a union representative taking her place would mean that interest groups will become the focus and not students. 

“It will be a tragedy for students, and that’s my greatest fear. My concern is they’ve been what’s standing in the way of kids learning today," DeVos told the News.

"If they really were concerned about individual kids and their futures, they wouldn’t be fighting at every step of the way giving parents and families the kind of choices they need if their assigned school isn’t working for them.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

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