Within hours of Joe Biden being called as the winner of the 2020 presidential election, among the congratulatory tweets and emotional messages of joy and relief, there was one other surprising development on social media: Betsy DeVos, one of Donald Trump’s most controversial cabinet members, suddenly became a trending topic on Twitter.
It was not too early, it seemed, to celebrate the coming dismissal of DeVos, perhaps the most divisive Secretary of Education in the nation’s history, and to seize the chance to undo the almost incalculable damage she has done over the course of her four-year tenure. “And added bonus of this election? Goodbye, Betsy DeVos!” tweeted one observer. “Time for a qualified Secretary of Education. Our kids have been waiting 4 long years for this.”
Among the dozens of tweets came messages of relief from an educator (“Having Betsy Devos leave might be the best thing that’s ever happened to public education in the US.”); a parent (“I would watch a livestream of Betsy DeVos cleaning out her office”); and even the singer Richard Marx (“One of the things I’m most looking forward to is a nation where our children’s education is not in any way threatened by the ignorant likes of @BetsyDeVosED”). Long Beach mayor Robert Garcia, said to be under consideration to fill Kamala Harris’s Senate seat, tweeted: “As a teacher and educator, I can’t express enough how elated I am that Betsy DeVos will no longer be anywhere near the Department of Education. America’s public school and teachers need investments, fair pay, and national Congressional support to reopen safely.”
And Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan included DeVos on a list of prominent Trump appointees who will soon be out of a job:
Reminder, it’s not just @realDonaldTrump who lost today. We’re also saying goodbye to Bill Barr, Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Eugene Scalia, Ben Carson, Jared Kushner, Steven Miller, as well as Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka. Today is a good day!
— Mark Pocan (@MarkPocan) November 8, 2020
But while the glee over her coming departure is understandable—among the criticisms of DeVos’s tenure as secretary was her promotion of charter schools at the expense of public ones and a refusal to do anything meaningful to address gun violence in schools, even after the Parkland shooting—whomever Joe Biden appoints to take her place as Education Secretary has a tough job ahead of them.
One bright note, and the one giving many parents and educators hope, is that the incoming first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, is herself a teacher and plans to continue working after her husband is inaugurated as president. She has made it clear that she will encourage the president-elect to appoint someone who has actually worked in the system and knows both its challenges and its possibilities.
In his victory speech on November 7th, the president-elect referred to Dr. Biden as he declared: “For America’s educators, this is a great day. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
Among the initiatives Biden has said he wants to pursue as president are universal pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-old children; making community college debt-free; and increasing the amount of Pell grants to help low-income students pay for college. He has also signaled his support for a proposal to forgive student debt.
According to The New York Times, the president-elect also plans to restore “Obama-era civil rights guidance”—policies rescinded DeVos— “that allowed transgender students to choose their school bathrooms, addressed the disproportionate disciplining of Black students and pressed for diversity in colleges and K-12 classrooms.”
As Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, told reporters last month, Biden would “be able to get some big, bold education legislation passed and certainly immediate relief for our schools and our educators, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not also going to take executive action within existing authority.”
Of course, the biggest challenge facing the next Secretary of Education is how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the question of how to safely educate the nation’s children. It is an issue that most brutally exposed DeVos’s incompetence.
“But it was in 2020, as American schools faced arguably their biggest crisis since the civil rights era, that you really made your contempt for teachers and children plain,” Dan Kois recently wrote in a scathing analysis of DeVos’s tenure for Slate. “As schools across the country sought aid and advice to reopen safely in the fall, you holed up in your Michigan compound, protected by around-the-clock U.S. Marshals that have cost taxpayers as much as $25 million over four years. (You’re the first Cabinet secretary ever to insist on such protection.) From your mansion, you joined Donald Trump’s demands that schools reopen NOW—but offered no support or assistance. The end result: politicizing school reopening as an issue, making it more difficult for schools to open safely. You’ve overseen a slow-motion education disaster that will have lasting effects on an entire generation of children.”
As a candidate, Biden said that the country needs to get the coronavirus under control to safely reopen schools and that his administration would work closely with “state, tribal, and local officials” to make sure any decision is made with “the safety of students and educators in mind.”
At the second presidential debate, referring to schools grappling with the pandemic, Biden said, “They need a lot of money to open. They need to deal with ventilation systems, smaller classes, more teachers, more pods. And [Trump has] refused to support that money.” Biden also called for “clear, consistent, effective” national guidelines.
Biden’s transition committee for education is being led by Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education. Darling-Hammond had been mentioned as a possible Education Secretary, but she took herself out of consideration, saying she wanted to remain in her current job.
The Washington Post recently reported that the leading contenders to succeed DeVos are Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association. According to the paper, other names said to be under consideration include Sonja Brookins Santelises of Baltimore City Public Schools; Janice K. Jackson of Chicago Public Schools; William Hite of the School District of Philadelphia; Tony Thurmond, the California state superintendent of public instruction; and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), a former national teacher of the year.