DeVos is no stranger to protest. Even a number of fellow Republicans cited DeVos’s lack of professional or personal experience with public schools in opposing her nomination. Limited support within the GOP prompted an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence to secure her appointment. After just days on the job, DeVos was blocked from entering a Washington, D.C., public school by parents and activists who oppose her agenda. A few months later she was booed by graduating students during her commencement speech at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University.
In September, students, faculty and community members held impromptu rallies on the University of Baltimore’s campus after DeVos’s appearance was announced. More than 3,200 people signed a petition expressing outrage at the choice, urging the school’s president, former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, to withdraw the invitation.
Protestors lambasted DeVos’s rollbacks of campus sexual-assault guidelines and support of deregulation in higher education in addition to her views on school choice. “One of the primary reasons we stood was to highlight her attempts to cut funding and financial assistance to students,” said Keanuu Smith-Brown, 22, the Student Government Association vice president. “The protests reflected opposition to the Trump administration as a whole.”
In her speech, DeVos praised the university, a public institution, for providing “flexibility outside of a traditional college environment.” She even highlighted several stories of recent graduates who overcame personal challenges, including one who grew up in a foster home and one whose parents grappled with addiction, to earn their degrees.
But the thesis of her speech—that a quality education and selfless perseverance can overcome any adversity—seemed to ignore growing evidence that the dream of economic mobility is out of reach for many Americans. Throughout the roughly 20-minute talk, she also focused on family support as a key to success while ignoring the role community and government play in both bolstering and funding the success stories at hand.
“She tried focusing on problems facing students and families without acknowledging the role she and the Trump administration play in exacerbating those challenges,” said Smith-Brown, who’s attended public schools his entire life. The Trump administration delayed action on student-loan forgiveness, which was designed to protect students who’d been defrauded by their college, and moved to cut funding for federal aid such as grants and scholarships. (On Wednesday, the Education Department announced that DeVos has taken action on thousands of applications for student-debt forgiveness, the first substantial move she’s taken on such claims.
DeVos also highlighted school choice, a model she’s spent 30 years promoting, as a way to empower families and uplift communities from poverty. But studies show that education in areas of entrenched poverty like Baltimore has a limited ability to increase social mobility. Many of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, according to one study, already contend with less public investment than their more affluent counterparts in the city. “I don’t think you can bring a critique to public schools after you defund them for generations,” Leyva said.