Why you should care
Because education is an emotional issue for many voters.
A Joe Biden stump speech doesn’t come with a lot of prepackaged applause lines. Anecdotes about personal tragedy and past Senate compromises take more precedence than big policy promises or red-meat attacks. But on a snowy night in small-town Independence, Iowa, there’s one line in particular that gets the former veep’s crowd whooping. “The first thing we’re going to do on education: Betsy DeVos goes,” Biden says. A night later and an hour away in Dubuque, Sen. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t even have to speak DeVos’ name to spark her crowd. “We need a secretary of education who believes in public education for everyone,” she says and is drowned out by cheers.
As the Democratic presidential nomination process begins in Iowa on Feb. 3, the name most prominent in partisans’ minds is Donald Trump. The polarizing president is expected to inspire a record-breaking Iowa Democratic caucus turnout. But not far behind in stoking a shudder and a charge of energy from campaign trail crowds is DeVos, a lower-tier Cabinet member who makes little news these days.
DeVos has drawn criticism for rescinding regulations that extended civil rights protections to transgender students, for rolling back an Obama-era crackdown on for-profit colleges and for trying to cut funding to the Special Olympics.
[Democratic voters] see … it doesn’t make sense to have someone in charge of something who knows nothing about it.
Christine Ihde, retired special education teacher
But the 62-year-old Michigan billionaire philanthropist, whose husband was CEO of Amway, is best known as an advocate of charter schools and private school vouchers — making her a lightning rod on the left.
Charters are government-funded but privately run alternatives to traditional public schools; vouchers give government funds to families to send their kids to private schools if they wish. Vouchers have long been opposed by Democratic lawmakers, as they in effect provide taxpayer support to religious education. Charters used to have more Democratic support — and the Obama administration promoted them heavily — but the 2020 field has by and large been either lukewarm or turned completely against them. (The biggest exception: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who reportedly plans to continue his long support for charters when he rolls out an education plan.)
The campaign trail passion against DeVos is also driven by memories of her 2017 confirmation hearing. The appearance included viral moments when she confused assessing teachers via “proficiency” or “growth,” and when she noted that guns in rural schools could be used to fend off grizzly bears. She was confirmed by the Senate only with Vice President Mike Pence voting to break a 50-50 tie.
“They [Democratic voters] see … it doesn’t make sense to have someone in charge of something who knows nothing about it,” says Christine Ihde, 62, a retired special education teacher who drove from Freeport, Illinois, to see Warren in Dubuque.
Since her confirmation, DeVos’ tenure has largely flown under the radar by the standards of a Trump Cabinet that has seen unprecedented turnover. DeVos is one of just six originals from early 2017, out of the 15 heads of Cabinet departments.
But DeVos, who has long been at the forefront of the fiery school-choice debate, has proposed $5 billion in federal tax credits for “Education Freedom Scholarships,” backing privately funded voucher programs in several states. (Congress is not expected to approve the funding.) Polls are mixed on the issue, but among Democrats, there is an increasing racial divide — with White Democrats less supportive but Black and Latino Democrats more in favor of vouchers and charters.
“Lost in the political chatter is the fact that education freedom is a consensus issue,” says Angela Morabito, press secretary at the Department of Education, citing roughly 70 percent support for such proposals in a poll by a pro-school choice group. “Voters demand it, students deserve it and Secretary DeVos’ Education Freedom Scholarships proposal would deliver it — without diverting a single penny away from public schools.”
Many Republicans see this as a sleeper issue that could peel urban Black voters away from Democrats, as charters are popular — and have shown promise — in some of America’s poorest-performing school districts. Trump has called school choice “the great civil rights issue of our time.”
On the campaign trail, a pro-school choice group led by people of color disrupted a Warren event in Atlanta in November by chanting “our children, our choice.” Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders have been the biggest charter school skeptics in the field, vowing to halt new federal charter funding. Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also want to ban for-profit charters, but have stopped short of seeking an end to federal support altogether.
The charter-voucher debate has not really bubbled to the surface of the race yet. On education, the most common intra-Democrat dispute has been over whether to make four-year public college free, and whether to forgive student loan debt.
But school choice could well be a general election battleground. Trump has shown interest in courting voters of color on the issue, while Democrats will count on teachers’ unions — the biggest foes of vouchers and charters — for volunteers and votes this fall.
And candidates of all stripes are playing to teachers in the primary. Warren often references her own time as a special education teacher, and Biden likes to call out the decades his wife, Jill Biden, worked as a teacher to emphasize how important the issue would be in his administration. “The secretary of education is going to have taught in a classroom,” Joe Biden tells the cheering crowd in Independence, Iowa. And if he doesn’t follow through on that pledge, he adds, “I’ll be sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom by myself.”