Some Hires by Betsy DeVos Are a Stark Departure From Her Reputation
WASHINGTON — Since her confirmation as the education secretary, Betsy DeVos has been the Trump cabinet member liberals love to hate, denouncing her as an out-of-touch, evangelical billionaire without the desire or capacity to protect vulnerable poor, black, immigrant, gay or transgender students.
But while Ms. DeVos has been reluctant to express sympathy for those groups, she has stacked her administration with appointees whose personal and professional backgrounds challenge the narrative that she has no interest in protecting those vulnerable students.
Among her appointees: a progressive Democrat who believes a broken education system is a form of white supremacy; a sexual assault survivor who is currently in a same-sex marriage; and a second-generation American who ran a federal program that helped undocumented immigrants.
While the education secretary has done little to highlight the diversity in her administration — the department declined to make any of the appointees available for interviews — DeVos watchers say that diversity should encourage critics to focus more on her actions than their preconceptions.
“It’s definitely surprising, and should make people question their assumptions about this administration,” Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank.
Ms. DeVos’s appointment of Candice E. Jackson to the department’s Office for Civil Rights has been among the most hotly disputed. Ms. Jackson is perhaps best known for her high-profile involvement in attacks against Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, in which she elevated women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault or harassment, while denouncing women who accused Mr. Trump of the same.
Ms. Jackson will oversee some of the issues the Trump administration has signaled it would step back from — such as the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, and investigations of sexual assaults on campus.
What is less known about Ms. Jackson is that she is a sexual assault survivor, and has been married to her wife for more than a decade.
“The idea that this administration is going to be anti-L.G.B.T., anti-women — I think we need to watch and see what happens,” Mr. Petrilli said. “This appointment should give folks on the left some comfort.”
Civil rights advocates, however, are skeptical. Ms. Jackson — who was appointed as a deputy in the civil rights office, but is leading it in an acting capacity — has never worked in civil rights enforcement and has criticized affirmative action and the women’s rights movement.
Ms. Jackson has not spoken publicly about her stances on social or educational issues, but her Twitter posts offer a glimpse of her views on certain issues.
In January, she shared an article about Mr. Trump being an ally of the gay community and commented that “Reasonable LGBT citizens (as opposed to the militant left-wing LGBT movement) have reason to cheer POTUS Trump; he’s shifting the GOP.” In another post, she wrote that “True choice combined with fiscal federalism is the way up for American schools and is on our horizon thanks to POTUS Trump.” And on Inauguration Day, she defended the Clintons, tweeting, “Truly disappointed that our wonderful MAGA crowd chose to boo the Clintons. Give them credit for respecting the Office & showing up,” including a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.”
In a recent research brief, a Georgetown University research organization, FutureEd, compiled a profile of quotes from Ms. Jackson’s college days writing for The Stanford Review, her university’s conservative student newspaper.
“As with most liberal solutions to a problem, giving special assistance to minority students is a band-aid solution to a deep problem,” Ms. Jackson wrote in The Review in 1998. The same year, she maintained that “college women who insist on banding together by gender to fight for their rights are moving backwards, not forwards.”
Eric Jackson, who wrote on The Stanford Review with Ms. Jackson but is not related to her, said that Ms. Jackson has been unfairly tarred by views from decades ago. As a classmate, he recalled that she challenged the liberal viewpoints widely held on campus as a self-proclaimed “libertarian feminist.” But he added that Ms. Jackson is an astute lawyer who follows the rule of law and understands vulnerability.
“What we can infer from her personal background is that she’s compassionate; she understands what it’s like, as a gay woman, to have to overcome adversity,” Mr. Jackson said.
Jason Botel, Ms. DeVos’s deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, made headlines for his strong support of charter schools and is believed to be a chief architect of some of the Trump administration’s school-choice agenda.
He is also a registered Democrat who supported President Barack Obama and has spent his career as an educator and an advocate for low-income minority children in Baltimore.
Mr. Botel was named to the department after serving a short stint as the chief education adviser to President Trump, a position he owed to his ties to the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom are advisers to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Botel came into the Trump orbit through Maggie Katz, a close friend of Ms. Trump’s, and Reed S. Cordish, Ms. Katz’s husband and a prominent Baltimore developer who joined the Trump White House as a top adviser. Ms. Katz and Mr. Cordish financially backed Mr. Botel’s charter school in Baltimore.
Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, said Mr. Botel represents Democratic school reformers who are committed to public school choice but are skeptical of vouchers and market-driven philosophies. Mr. Botel has also supported the national Common Core standards, which have been denounced by Ms. DeVos and Mr. Trump as federal overreach.
“Jason Botel is emblematic of some of the larger tensions in the administration,” Mr. Toch said.
In Baltimore, Mr. Botel began his career through Teach for America, and taught for three years at a middle school with a high level of students in poverty. He later started the Baltimore foundation of the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national charter school effort known as KIPP, and launched the KIPP Ujima Village Academy, which would go on to become one of the most rigorous, high-performing and highly sought-after schools in Baltimore.
“The school was a proof point for what was possible with poor black students,” said Andres Alonso, a former superintendent of the Baltimore City school district.
As the operator of KIPP, Mr. Botel battled the Baltimore Teachers Union over the school’s extended day, which resulted in a deal that both sides praised. He stopped using placement tests for KIPP applicants after families of low-performing students said the tests were deterring such students from applying.
When he became executive director of MarylandCAN, an education advocacy group, Mr. Botel used the platform to be more outspoken on social issues. He publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement, which opposed Mr. Trump during last year’s presidential campaign. In a 2014 blog post titled “Black Minds Matter,” Mr. Botel wrote that his advocacy for school choice policies was “part of the effort to dismantle the white supremacist system that exists.”
A year later, after Baltimore erupted into riots following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, Mr. Botel wrote, “White people have gradually become more conscious of the racist foundations of so many of our institutions, but we have continued to fall short of the fundamental reforms that would bring true justice to all people in our state.”
Jessica Shiller, an associate professor of urban education at Towson University in Maryland, agreed that Mr. Botel was a strong advocate for poor, black children but that he too often held up charter schools and choice-friendly public schools as the best models.
“While that benefited some students in Baltimore, the scaling up of that agenda for whole school districts can be dangerous,” she said. “People didn’t appreciate his one-dimensional thinking.”
Jose Viana, an assistant deputy education secretary and the director of the Office of English Language Acquisition, was a much more low-key appointment for Ms. DeVos, but he assumed that position at a time when immigrant students face heightened discrimination, a breakdown of protections and the loss of family members to deportation.
Mr. Viana joined the department from North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, where he spent eight years helping the children of migrant workers — including undocumented immigrants — overcome academic barriers that resulted from frequent moves and a lack of access to essential services such as health care.
His job as a recruiter for the North Carolina Migrant Education Program required him to seek out students who could use the federal government’s help to adjust to life in the United States.
Mr. Viana often quipped that he was “created in Cuba and born in the United States,” said Sonja Williams, who worked with Mr. Viana in North Carolina. His mother emigrated to the United States when she was six months pregnant with Mr. Viana, after his father was imprisoned by the Fidel Castro regime. Mr. Viana learned to speak English in elementary school.
“He brings that real truth to that experience,” Ms. Williams said.
Mr. Viana will serve as “chief adviser to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on all matters related to the education of English learners,” according to his public biography.
Ethan Hutt, a professor of education and policy at the University of Maryland, said Ms. DeVos’s appointments “show the complexity of the intersection of identity politics and the fault lines of education reform.”
“If nothing else, Betsy DeVos is an enigma, and her under appointments represent that to some extent.” Mr. Hutt said. “It shows what she wants at the table. But the question is how much influence they will ultimately have.”