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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 6, 2020

How unpopular is Betsy DeVos?

A congressional hearing about the Trump administration’s policy on student debt turned personal for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Most of the Dec. 12 hearing focused on DeVos’ actions related to a student debt relief rule. Democrats said DeVos made it harder for certain students to get debt relief, while Republicans defended her response to Obama-era rules.

At the hearing, the main topic was how DeVos sought to make changes to the borrower defense to repayment rule. The provision was little used until the Obama administration established new rules to help students get their federal education loans cancelled if colleges misrepresented graduation rates, their ability to transfer credits or their job placement rates.

The Obama administration finalized changes to the regulations in 2016 after Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain, closed its doors amid fraud allegations. DeVos sought to rewrite the rules, leading to extensive litigation, including a contempt of court finding against DeVos. DeVos blamed the Obama administration for the backlog of tens of thousands of cases and announced changes that include tiers of loan relief

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a former school board member and principal from South Florida, went after DeVos, saying she is trying to "destroy public education." 

"You are the most unpopular person in our government," said Wilson, a Democrat. "Millions will register to vote in 2020. Many will vote to remove you more than to remove the president."

The ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, said Wilson’s comments were "over the line."

DeVos’s confirmation in 2017 was a contentious one for the Trump administration and required a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. DeVos, a longtime wealthy Republican donor from Michigan, is an advocate for vouchers and charter schools. 

As fact-checkers, we wanted to focus on the checkable aspect of what Wilson said: Is DeVos really the most unpopular person in the U.S. government?

Wilson’s statement about "in our government" was overly broad, but what she was referring to was what poll respondents said about DeVos compared to other Trump Cabinet officials. We found polling that supports Wilson’s statement about DeVos’s popularity, but the polling is more than one year old.

Polling about Trump Cabinet members

We found that YouGov and Morning Consult have conducted separate polls that compare the favorability of Trump’s Cabinet members. Wilson’s spokeswoman cited a 2017 article in the Huffington Post entitled, "How Betsy DeVos Became The Most Hated Cabinet Secretary."

The article cited an October 2017 HuffPost/YouGov internet poll that found 35% had a strongly unfavorable view of DeVos, the highest among 13 officials. (Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions finished second.) 

However, the poll also showed that many respondents were not familiar enough with the Cabinet members to give a favorability opinion. DeVos was among the most familiar officials, as 30% of respondents said they were unfamiliar with her. 

YouGov has polled about DeVos’ favorability five times since she was appointed. The most recent poll, in April 2018, found DeVos had the highest "very unfavorable" rating (28%). 

Politico/Morning Consult polled about the favorability of DeVos on four occasions since 2017, with the most recent one in the spring of 2018. That poll showed DeVos with a 31% very unfavorable rating, the highest among 15 Cabinet members. 

Even though the polls are a little dated, Wilson’s statement is consistent with the evidence, said Washington University political scientist Steven S. Smith.

Education Department spokeswoman Angela Morabito told PolitiFact that DeVos isn’t working to win a popularity contest. But she pointed to polling by an education research and policy journal showing growing public support for certain school choice programs.

Related: By the numbers: Is college worth the cost?

Our ruling

Wilson said DeVos is the "most unpopular person in our government."

Two polling organizations asking about popularity for about a dozen Trump administration officials back up her statement, though they are a little outdated. We found no polling about the popularity for DeVos in 2019.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

C-SPAN, House Education and Labor Committee, Dec. 12, 2019

Rolling Stone, Congresswoman Tells Betsy DeVos, You Are 'Out to Destroy Public Education' Dec. 13, 2019

Inside Higher Ed, Raising the Bar for Loan Forgiveness, Sept. 3, 2019

Inside Higher Ed, Attorneys General sue DeVos, July 7, 2017

Washington Post, Trump administration sets higher hurdles for defrauded students to erase debt, Sept. 3, 2019

NPR, DeVos Held In Contempt Of Court For Enforcing Loans On Defrauded College Students, Oct. 25, 2019

CQ News, After delay, DeVos touts limited student loan forgiveness plan, Dec. 12, 2019

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Borrower Defense, Sept. 25, 2019

U.S. Department of Education, Press release, Aug. 30, 2019

U.S. Department of Education, Press release, Dec. 10, 2019

Education Next Poll, Public Support Grows for Higher Teacher Pay and Expanded School Choice, 2019

Associated Press, Secretary DeVos booed speaking at Bethune-Cookman commencement, May 11, 2017

Daytona Beach News-Journal, B-CU president Edison Jackson steps down amid mounting money woes, July 11, 2017

PolitiFact, Unpaid fine by Betsy DeVos PAC subject of misleading attack by Cordray on DeWine in Ohio, Aug. 7, 2018

PolitiFact, Frederica Wilson says she banned dirty dancing, April 9, 2010

Email interview, Joyce Jones, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson spokesman, Dec. 13, 2019

Email interview, Steven S. Smith, Washington University political scientist, Dec. 16, 2019

U.S. Department of Education, Statement from Angela Morabito, Dec. 16, 2019

Email interview, Mark Kantrowitz, Savingforcollege.com, Dec. 16, 2019 

Email interview, Allie Bidwell Arcese, Managing Editor, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Dec. 17, 2019

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