U.S. Department of Education
As speakers appear at the virtual Republican National Convention over four nights this week, one prominent but polarizing face will apparently be missing -- that of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
DeVos wasn’t included on a list of more than 70 speakers scheduled by the Trump campaign to speak during the convention.
That’s somewhat surprising, education policy experts said, given her championing of giving parents more choice over what K-12 schools their children can attend, a popular position among Republicans. And as Politico noted in February, DeVos has been visible on the campaign trail for President Donald Trump, and she drew cheers while slamming one of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s main higher education proposals -- free college.
“Preach it, sister!” Politico reported one person yelled out when DeVos attacked the idea of making all colleges and universities free, a proposal originally made by Senator Bernie Sanders but adopted by Biden.
"Don’t think for a second that 'free' would be free from strings and control," Politico reported DeVos as saying at a Women for Trump event outside Harrisburg, Pa. "You better believe that if Washington's paying for your college, Washington is deciding what you can study as well."
Wesley Whistle, senior adviser for education policy and strategy at the left-leaning think tank New America, was among those who were surprised at DeVos being left out.
"She's one of the longest-serving secretaries and her family donates so much,” he said, referring to the tens of millions of dollars the education secretary and her husband and other relatives have given Republican candidates.
“Not to mention, school choice is such red meat for Republicans and Trump can't stop talking about it,” said Whistle, a frequent critic of DeVos’s policies.
Neither a Trump campaign spokeswoman nor Angela Morabito, an Education Department spokeswoman, would comment Monday on why DeVos was left out.
But it’s less surprising, said others, including Tamara Hiler, an education policy director at the centrist Third Way, considering polls show DeVos is deeply unpopular nationally, including with the key Independent voters who could decide the election, as well as the lukewarm support she receives even among a significant number of Republicans.
A Third Way poll in June found only 16 percent had a positive view of DeVos, and 35 percent had a negative view. That was almost half as much as those who have a positive view of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (29 percent), for-profit colleges (34 percent), Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (38 percent), Trump (41 percent), Republicans in Congress (42 percent), congressional Democrats (45 percent) or the 48 percent support received by the agency DeVos heads, the Education Department.
The poll tracks with several others, including one in July by The Economist and YouGov that found 40 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of DeVos. Only 23 percent had a favorable view of the education secretary. Among Independents, 21 percent had a favorable view of DeVos, and 38 percent had a negative view.
Even among Republicans, only a little more than a third, 37 percent, viewed DeVos favorably, compared to 19 percent who had an unfavorable view of her, while about half didn’t have strong feelings.
Another poll in the battleground state of Michigan two years ago, conducted by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV, found that 51 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable view of DeVos, compared with 20 percent who viewed her favorably. Independents in DeVos’ home state particularly disapprove of her, 11 percent to 51 percent.
And those polls were conducted before DeVos’s controversial push to reopen schools amid the pandemic.
“Aside from being unpopular, DeVos personifies Trump's biggest re-election vulnerability -- mismanaging the COVID-19 crisis,” said Michael Dannenberg, Education Reform Now’s vice president for strategic initiatives and higher education. “Trump and DeVos pushed hard for schools to reopen regardless of public health considerations, thereby putting children's lives at risk. And they failed at that, particularly with respect to K-12 schools. They put personal gain ahead of young people's lives, children's lives. It’s unforgivable.”
But other polarizing speakers are scheduled to speak at the convention, including Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis homeowners who pointed guns at protesters calling for police reforms.
Noah Weinrich, spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, saw DeVos’s absence as more of a reflection of convention organizers deciding to focus on “rising stars/personalities within the conservative movement than on Cabinet officials” in selecting the convention’s speakers.
Indeed, only three Cabinet officials -- Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson -- are scheduled to speak during the four-night convention. On the other hand, speakers include Rebecca Friedrichs, a former California schoolteacher who is suing the California Teachers Association union and challenging a state law requiring her to pay dues to the union.
Republicans, Weinrich said, are “trying to keep a tight message: they're really focusing on the immediate concerns of the economy and on civil unrest more than long-term policy areas like education or foreign policy.”
At the same time, Weinrich suspects, the national Republican Party “is also trying to move the conversation away from COVID and its effects on things like schools, health, etc., and focus on drawing a contrast between Trump and Biden, and tying Biden to the left wing of the Democratic Party.”
In that light, Weinrich said he could see speakers could draw attention to some of Biden’s higher education proposals.
"I would expect to hear mention of Biden and the left pushing for free college and for more ‘woke’ policies on campuses in classrooms, while the right pushes for alternative, more affordable college options," he said. "Speakers may argue that the left will make taxpayers foot the bill for increasing college costs and will crack down on free speech on college campuses."