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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at a White House meeting, March 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

For four years, opponents of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos deplored her private school priorities, so it was hardly expected she’d be hailed as a hero for a sudden epiphany disassociating herself from President Donald Trump and resigning.

The most succinct reaction to her meaningless resignation 13 days before her term ended came in a two-word statement from a longtime nemesis, the American Federation of Teachers: Good riddance.

Instead of being praised as one of the first Trump cabinet members to bow out in the wake of violence surrounding Monday’s Capitol takeover, DeVos is prompting a fresh wave of cynicism and antipathy, along with a fervent hope for better policies ahead once Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden’s appointee for the job, takes over.

“Betsy DeVos has been a total disaster for students’ civil rights for four years as Education Secretary and gets no credit now for resigning 13 days before inauguration,” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights coalition, said in a tweet.

It was only toward the end of her resignation letter that DeVos mentioned the very constituency many believe have been harmed most by her tenure: children.

To be sure, DeVos made it clear she’s had no change of heart over her controversial and in many cases unsuccessful policies, including a push for vouchers that fell short and her failed directive ordering states to redirect coronavirus funds to private schools (three federal judges ruled against her). She’s also been excoriated for rolling back civil rights protections both for minority children and for transgender students.

DeVos “enthusiastically sent our taxpayer dollars to schools that explicitly and actively discriminate against LGBTQ+ students,” Eliza Byard, the executive director of the advocacy group GLSEN, said in a statement. “She willfully destroyed programs and approaches carefully designed to protect the civil rights of Black and Brown students and students with disabilities.”

Byard was among the critics who would have preferred to see DeVos support invoking the 25th amendment for removing Trump from office, to “protect the nation from this President’s unhinged support for white supremacist violence.”

Instead of criticizing a president she has been unfailingly loyal to, DeVos used her farewell letter earlier this week to urge Congress to reject Biden’s education agenda. On her way out, she defended her school choice, pro-voucher agenda.

“We have sparked a national conversation about putting students and parents in charge of education, leading to expanded school choice and education freedom in many states,” DeVos noted, in a self-serving letter that touted her accomplishments in restoring “the proper federal role by returning power to states, communities, educators and parents.”

It was only toward the end of her resignation letter that DeVos mentioned the very constituency many believe have been harmed most by her tenure: children.

“Impressionable children are watching all of us, and they are learning from us. I believe we each have a moral obligation to exercise good judgment and model the behavior we hope they would emulate,” DeVos wrote.

DeVos has long been a controversial figure, enraging advocacy groups for favoring for-profit colleges that may leave students drowning in debt, and appointing several executives from the for-profit college industry to high-level positions overseeing their former companies and others.

During the pandemic, she pushed schools to reopen without offering federal support, guidelines or money, at a time when many public-school parents had little choice and were desperate for help.

In fact, she insisted it was not her responsibility.

Related: Endangered public schools need federal leadership more than ever

I asked Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for some perspective, especially since he agrees with many aspects of her pro-school-choice agenda.

“Betsy DeVos has turned out to be a terrible champion for the ideas she cared about.”

– Michael Petrilli, Fordham Institute.

“Betsy DeVos has turned out to be a terrible champion for the ideas she cared about,” Petrilli told me. During the pandemic, he noted, “she abdicated her responsibility, and that was a real shame. She hurt the very causes she cared about so much.”

Still, some school-choice advocates disagreed with the torrent of criticism DeVos faced in her resignation.

“There is certainly reason to say she should have left Trump a while ago, but I see no cowardice in how she did her job,” tweeted Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the conservative Cato Institute. “She put up with massive, insulting personal abuse for four years. It takes guts to do that.”

The three-million member National Education Association was less forgiving.

“She has failed our students yet again when they needed her most. Her complicity, cowardice, and complete incompetence will be her legacy,” noted Becky Pringle, the organization’s president.

And Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, called her “the worst Secretary of Education in history.”

Without explanation, DeVos responded, “You know not of what you speak,” via Twitter.

Pringle struck an optimistic note, though. “We will build a new public education system to ensure it is one where all students — no matter who they are or where they live — have access and opportunity to a racially just and high-quality education,’’ she said.

Petrilli, too, said he was looking forward. “Her leaving is a very good thing for education reform,” Petrilli said. And he is enthusiastic about Cardona. “I think he sounds like the right man for the job, someone not all that interested in seeing himself in the headlines,’’ he said. “We need to bring people together and help schools and school systems to face the enormous challenges ahead.”

This story about Betsy Devos was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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