In the midst of the most politically chaotic month I can remember, it seems important to imagine something worth hoping for. Consider this: If Donald Trump is defeated in the November election, after January, Betsy DeVos will no longer be the U.S. Secretary of Education.
DeVos does not believe in public education: She once declared: “Government really sucks.” And she has consistently attacked the idea of “a system” of public schools: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.'” she declared. “This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Betsy likes school choice via school privatization at public expense.
DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education is, of course, responsible under law for something very different: Its purpose is to administer many programs supporting public schools and protecting the rights of the 50 million students enrolled in public schools across the United States. Her department administers Title I compensatory funding for the schools serving concentrations of poor children, funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and a host of other functions supporting, for example, programming for English language learners and American Indian children in public schools. While, through the Office for Civil Rights, her department is responsible for protecting students from racial, gender, and sexual orientation bias in their public schools, her record for investigating punitive discipline violations and protecting the rights of transgender students, for example, has been lacking.
Betsy DeVos, a lifelong supporter of private and religious schools and the expansion of tax-funded tuition vouchers for private schools, has failed to advocate for expanding equity and opportunity in the public schools and instead pursued the privatization of public education throughout her tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her biggest contribution has been through advocacy for the expansion of vouchers in a number of states. At the federal level, the long range impact of her tenure is unlikely to last.
What has she accomplished at the federal level?
- DeVos has been a strong promoter of for-profit colleges and trade schools, whose operation is heavily dependent on federally guaranteed student loans. The Obama administration established a “borrower defense to repayment rule” to protect students saddled with enormous student loan debt when such schools have been proven to have defrauded students by advertising inadequate training programs that left their graduates unemployable or when the schools have simply folded. Betsy DeVos spent the first three years of her tenure blocking settlements with defrauded students under the “borrower defense to repayment rule.” Eventually DeVos rewrote the rule to deny protections for defrauded students. Led by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Congress passed a law to nullify DeVos’s rewrite of the “borrower defense to repayment rule.” President Trump subsequently vetoed the action by Congress, and Congress could not muster quite enough votes to overturn the President’s veto. DeVos’s version of the rule has gone into effect, but it became clear in this process that without a President and Secretary of Education determined to protect the for-profit college industry, Congress will more likely protect student borrowers’ rights.
- DeVos has also strongly supported the federal Charter Schools Program. Last week, DeVos used her power as Secretary of Education to make her final round of annual awards in the federal Charter Schools Program. The Department announced the awarding of $131 million in new charter school startup and expansion grants to five states, ten nonprofit charter schools, and three statewide charter school associations. The Education Department’s Charter Schools Program (CSP), launched in 1994, has been criticized for years. It has been panned for poor record keeping and the absence of oversight in a series of reports from the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General. A year ago the Network for Public Education condemned the CSP for seeding the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools but failing to oversee their operation and wasting tax dollars when more than a third of the schools that have received the grants either never opened or quickly shut down.
For the most part, however, we can be grateful that DeVos has been more successful promoting her priorities than enacting them into law.
- Every year since she was appointed, DeVos has inserted Education Freedom Scholarships, a $5 billion tuition tax credit voucher program, into President Trump’s proposed budget, and every year Congress has refused to establish and fund this program. This past summer Trump declared that Education Freedom Scholarship Tuition Tax Credits would be a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, and in July, he demanded that these tuition tax credit vouchers be part of any second federal COVID-19 relief bill. But, thankfully, somehow in the chaos of the past month, that priority seems to have faded away.
- Another of DeVos’s schemes was blocked by a federal judge at the end of September. When, last March, Congress passed the CARES Act coronavirus economic relief package which included a distribution plan for education relief dollars, Betsy DeVos announced a totally different plan for distributing the dollars, which Congress had directed primarily to the nation’s public schools serving concentrations of children in poverty. DeVos insisted that a larger portion than Congress allocated would go to private schools, and all summer, even as school district leaders were trying to make investments to open schools safely for fall, she told them that they would have fewer dollars than they had first expected. After a rash of court cases and three decisions against DeVos’s plan, she finally gave up at the end of the fourth week of September—too late to help much with planning for the fall reopening of schools. Even as she accepted the court’s decision, DeVos defended the needs of private schools over the public schools. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “DeVos said her department will not appeal the rulings, but she said that private school students and the people they serve still deserve aid and consideration. She stood by her view that Congress never intended for CARES aid to benefit some students but not others, and added that this ‘did not stop some from suing us, attempting to deny private-school children and teachers help they needed.'”
During recent months, DeVos’s primary accomplishment has been actively contributing to the confusion about how to open public schools safely during the coronavirus pandemic. DeVos and her department have pressed for the reopening of public schools across the states while at the same time they have promoted guidance altered by Trump administration appointees at the Centers for Disease Control to make it look as though children are less likely to be infected by or infect others with COVID-19. Trump and DeVos pressured school leaders to open schools in person, despite failing to provide clear scientific guidance about the spread of the coronavirus.
In a scathing report, the U.S. Government’s General Accountability Office criticized both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education for issuing inconsistent, incomplete, and sometimes mistaken guidance for school leaders trying to make crucial decisions about whether and how to reopen public schools. Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains further: “(T)he CDC released a big batch of school guidance documents July 23, detailing how to reopen, how to screen students, and how to mitigate the risk of virus transmission in classrooms.” But, Blad continues quoting the GAO’s report: “However, for weeks afterward, its guidance on screening for children and employees for entering schools was internally inconsistent, and sometimes had been shared (by the U.S. Department of Education) in ways that are incomplete, potentially adding to confusion… We raised these incongruences with the agencies during the course of our work. Education updated its website to better align with CDC guidance. In response to our recommendation that the Director of the CDC ensure that its guidance related to schools’ operating status is cogent, clear, and internally consistent, CDC said it was in the process of making corrections to eliminate inconsistencies.”
Blad adds that all through the summer: “Trump and DeVos suggested schools’ federal funding may be at risk if they don’t allow students to return for in-person learning.” And DeVos has continued the pressure. Last week, POLITICO’s Mackenzie Mays reported: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged Wednesday to use the ‘bully pulpit’ to pressure states to reopen schools for in-person learning amid the pandemic… The comments come the same day that Boston schools paused reopening plans because of a rise in coronavirus cases and as New York City scrambles to reverse its reopening plans for hundreds of schools.”
With Betsy DeVos, ideology always dominates. Mays adds that last week DeVos once again attacked teachers unions: “DeVos slammed teachers unions for their stance against charter schools on Wednesday. In California, teacher strikes across the state last year included a push for legislation to crack down on charters, with unions alleging they unfairly take too many resources from community schools. ‘It’s not focused on doing what’s right for students. It’s focused on adult issues and protecting adult positions, adult power, and frankly, at the core, it’s all around the resources and the power.’ she said. ‘This is not focused on doing what’s right for kids.'” In reality, the Red4Ed strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland last year emphasized that public school students’ needs had in fact been abandoned as money was diverted to charter schools. Economist Gordon Lafer documented, for example, that the Oakland Unified School District is losing $57.3 million every year as essential public school funds are being diverted to charter schools.
If Trump is defeated in the upcoming election, we all need to push hard for a U.S. Department of Education that will work on behalf of America’s system of public schools—accessible to all of our nation’s children and adolescents—designed to serve their needs and protect their rights.