DeVos Locks Out Teachers Demanding that Education Department Address Inequity, Protect Civil Rights

Last week Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, marked her first year in office with a news conference where she announced that her greatest accomplishment has been diminishing the role of her department.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed Wednesday that her proudest accomplishments in her first year in office were shrinking he role of the agency, rolling back Obama-era initiatives and erasing outdated regulations… She rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault in the name of reining in a department whose role she believes had grown too large.  She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency.  ‘Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,’ DeVos said… She is a rarity among education secretaries, having never worked in public schools before her appointment.”

Worse, last Thursday, DeVos locked the doors of the U.S. Department of Education and left Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), along with teachers and parent activists, standing on the sidewalk outside. Eskelsen Garcia, Weingarten and a group of pro-public schools activists had tried to make an appointment personally to deliver 80,000 report cards rating DeVos’s accomplishments this year as a failure.

The report cards were created by a coalition of education, civil rights, community organizing, religious and labor organizations—The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The Alliance released its report card in conjunction with a strong statement about DeVos’s failure to implement the Department of Education’s defined mission to rectify economic and racial justice in the nation’s 90,000 K-12 public schools. School teachers and school support professionals in public schools around the country had added personal comments on the 80,000 report cards Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten attempted to deliver. Together NEA and AFT represent the majority of the nation’s more than 3 million public school teachers.

By rejecting a meeting with leaders of the nation’s school teachers and other public school supporters, DeVos lost the opportunity to listen to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ substantive critique: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

The Alliance explains: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.”

The Alliance’s most serious charge is the Department’s failure to fulfill the mission of Title I and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights: “(A)cross the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience. But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

Last week Politico‘s Kimberly Hefling and Caitlin Emma reported that Betsy DeVos has been taking lessons from the prominent “Republican messaging expert” Frank Luntz—“to figure out how to talk about conservative educational policies without sparking protests from teachers and liberals.”  Hefling and Emma report that a notation appeared on DeVos’s calendar last June: “Frank has a 60-slide deck of the words to use, and the words to lose, regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay and all the other issues in education reform.”  According to  Politico, DeVos wants to avoid explicit mentions of school choice and instead talk about “coming together and finding solutions’ with words like “innovation” and “blended learning.”

Politico‘s reporters describe recent speeches in which DeVos uses softer language: “The new message was… on display during a January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, when she said her job is not to be the country’s  ‘choice chief.’  Rather, she said it was time to ask questions, such as  ‘Why do we group students by age?’ and ‘Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?’  ‘We must answer these questions… We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students.'”

Hefling and Emma continue: “DeVos herself described her focus on ‘rethinking school’ and innovation as a ‘broadening of the message’ during a roundtable with reporters Wednesday.  And expanding school choice options is one way to shake up education, she said. ‘We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids, and helping kids learn in the way they’re wired up to learn,’ she said.  ‘We have far too many places and way too many examples of doing things repeatedly and continuing to double down on doing something the same way and expecting different results.'”

If DeVos wanted seriously to engage such issues, she would have responded to the questions for which NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been demanding answers as the condition for setting up a conversation with the head of the National Education Association.  You’d think she might also have politely received Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia, and their group of pro-public schools advocates when they tried to make an appointment to talk with her on Friday about the Alliance’s serious critique.

That DeVos locked the building to avoid meeting with Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia last Thursday sends a perfectly clear message that cannot be obscured by Frank Luntz’s fuzzy linguistic framing. Betsy DeVos considers the nation’s teachers unions her enemies.

That’s too bad because, while Betsy DeVos herself has never worked in a public school, the NEA and the AFT represent the millions of professionals who are devoting their lives to that very endeavor. They might have some things to teach our inexperienced U.S. Secretary of Education.

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Test-and-Punish Just Hangs on as Failed Education Strategy

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is like an old, altered, jacket, now frayed at the cuffs. The fabric was never really good in the first place and, when the jacket was made over, the alternations didn’t do much to improve the design. Not much noticed at the back of the closet, the jacket sags there. But it would take too much energy to throw it away.

Pretty much everybody agrees these days that the 2001 school “reform” law, No Child Left Behind, was a failure. The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went to the American Enterprise Institute the other day and criticized the education policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, on January 8, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the day President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch declared, “NCLB, as it was known, is the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress.  It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure… The theory was simple, simplistic, and stupid: test, then punish or reward.”

In December, 2015, Congress made over No Child Left Behind by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While the law reduces the reach of the Secretary of Education and requires that the states instead of the federal government develop plans for punishing the so-called “failing” schools, ESSA, as the new version is called, keeps annual standardized testing and perpetuates the philosophy that the way to make educators raise test scores faster is to keep on with the sanctions.  ESSA remains a test-and-punish law.

But now it seems ESSA is going out of use like that old, remade jacket. The states, as required, have churned out their ESSA school improvement plans and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos’s staff people have been busy approving them—in batches.  This week the Department approved a batch of eleven such plans—from Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Education Week‘s federal education reporter, Alyson Klein describes the eleven plans that were approved this week.

Ohio’s was one of the plans approved, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Plain Dealer perfectly captures the irony of the now pretty meaningless process in Ohio’s ESSA Plan Wins Federal Approval—and Few Care: “Though many observers nationally and here in Ohio had hoped states would present grand new visions for schools through the new plans mandated by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that hasn’t happened… State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s plan made few changes to the state’s testing and report card system, promising little more than making sure the state follows federal law. A new vision and approach?  That’s all being handled separately, just not in the plan. Critics wanted the plan to make big cuts in state tests. It doesn’t but DeMaria and the state school board later asked the legislature for those cuts.  Others wanted the plan to reduce the use of tests in teacher evaluations.  DeMaria and a panel of educators are seeking those changes apart from the submitted plan. And some wanted the state to show a vision for schools that was less reliant on test scores in academic subjects. School board members and several panels of educators have been meeting the last few months to build new goals that are far more focused on the ‘whole child’ than before.”

There is even some talk in Columbus about the problems of the state’s “A”-“F” letter grades to rate and rank schools and school districts, despite that Ohio’s school report cards with letter grades are a feature of the ESSA plan Ohio submitted and that was approved this week.

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act is merely a made over version of No Child Left Behind—made over because Congress wasn’t really ready to accept that the law’s overall strategy of high stakes testing and a succession of punishments has accomplished neither of NCLB’s overall goals: helping the children who have been left behind and closing achievement gaps.

But consensus about No Child Left Behind’s overall failure and the failure of it punitive strategy keeps on growing.  Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz put several more nails in its coffin in his excellent new book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Please read this book. In it Koretz shows exactly why the scheme of testing all students and punishing the teachers and the schools where scores do not rise quickly cannot work—why the scheme is merely a charade:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) “The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

If our society were intent on helping the children who have been left behind, we would invest in ameliorating poverty and in supporting the hard working teachers in the schools in our poorest communities. Things like reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program would help!  The ESSA plans being submitted to the Department of Education aren’t having much impact at all.  The old, made-over NCLB jacket is slowly slipping to the back of the closet.

National School Funding Expert Shreds Far-Right Rationale for Portable School Funding

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has gone around relentlessly announcing her philosophy of education, even in places where the message might not be age-appropriate. For example, last fall to celebrate the beginning of the school year, DeVos visited a K-8 school in Casper, Wyoming, where she told the children: “Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”  Earlier in the summer, she had said the same thing to a more comprehending and likely audience at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “There are individual men and women and there are families… and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

DeVos’s words have been consistent, despite that to me they sound like gobbledygook. How do we separate the needs of the individual children being educated from the system of schools our society has set up for that purpose? Is DeVos’s message really just an empty, educational-libertarian linguistic construction to convey the message she stated bluntly in another 2015 speech, when she declared, “Government really sucks.”?

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, now renamed as ExcelinEd, recently released a brief to help us understand what DeVos means when she says, “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families.”  The new brief, Student-Centered State Funding: A How-to Guide for State Policymakers, purports to tell states how to remake their school funding distribution formulas in order to make each child’s school funding fully portable—a little backpack full of cash that the student can carry with her as her parents choose the school they believe will perfectly meet her needs. The brief seems to emphasize public school choice across school districts, but the implication is that the state/local public funding would be fully portable to whatever school, public or private, the parent might choose.

ExcelinEd’s brief says there are five simple steps for remaking a state’s school finance: “(1) Establish a base funding amount that every district receives for each student served… (2) Require local funding for a district on a per student basis…. (3) Structure all funding for students with special needs or disadvantages as a weight…. (4) Adjust funding for districts each year based on the number and characteristics of students they are serving. (5) Remove restrictions on how districts spend money….”  ExcelinEd defends its new strategy as more transparent, more empowering of districts and parents, and fairer.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado asked Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, to evaluate ExcelinEd’s new plan.  NEPC just published Baker’s review.

Baker is not impressed: “First, the brief advances the false dichotomy that state and district school finance systems should focus on funding the child, not funding the (bureaucratic, adult-centered) institutions that serve those children. This false dichotomy wrongly asserts there is no benefit to children of equitably and adequately financing educational institutions, and ignores the fact that it ultimately takes institutions, institutional structures and governance to deliver the relevant and appropriate programs and services… Second, the brief is based on overly simplistic, frequently misrepresented, and often outright incorrect versions of the status quo.  This includes overbroad mischaracterizations of how schools are currently financed…  Third, the details of the brief’s proposals and espoused benefits are entirely speculative and unsubstantiated….”

In its brief, ExcelinEd describes its theory about how states currently operate public schools: (1) that, “states fund specific staffing positions, services, programs or schools rather than students,” (2) that “states have hold harmless provisions such that districts get the same funding even if they lose students,” (3) that “states allow local funding of districts that is not dependent on the number of students,” and (4) that “states provide additional funding to districts that have a relatively small number of students.”  Baker  demonstrates the flaws in ExcelinEd’s argument: “The authors appear to be unaware or simply ignore the vast body of peer reviewed literature for guiding a) the setting of foundation levels, based on ‘costs’ of providing children with equal opportunities to achieve common outcome goals, b) the determination of additional costs associated with variation in individual student needs and in collective student population needs, c) the additional costs associated with differences in economies of scale and population sparsity, and d) the differences in costs associated with geographic differences in competitive wages for teachers and other school staff.  Additionally, literature dating back nearly 100 years addresses methods for determining equitable local contribution toward foundation spending levels.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s brief for ignoring that school funding inequity is universally connected to disparities in the local property taxing capacity of local school districts. He explains that a primary purpose of state aid formulas is to equalize—to compensate for unequal local capacity—“to… keep in check per-pupil inequity resulting from local property tax revenues.”  “But the obsession in the ExcelinEd policy brief seems to be primarily on the fact that available funding for school districts is not 100% linked to the coming and going of individual students… ExcelinEd offers a bizarre illustration of how districts could increase or decrease their property taxes as enrollment shifts occur, with no consideration whatsoever of the primary basis by which local contributions are determined…. That is, to ensure that local jurisdictions, regardless of their wealth, can attain adequate and equitable per-pupil resources… The authors do not address the property wealth equalization goals of state school finance formulas….”

Baker further condemns ExcelinEd’s failure to acknowledge the role of concentrated student poverty across a local district’s student population, and failure to distinguish concentrated poverty from any individual student’s personal lack of resources. While it would be relatively easy to compensate for a child’s personal poverty with weighted additional funding the child would carry in his personal backpack full of cash, concentrated poverty is a more serious challenge that is glossed over in ExcelinEd’s brief.  Here is Baker: “Student demographic factors that affect the institutional costs of achieving common outcomes come in two parts—individual factors related to specific-student needs (language proficiency, disability) and collective population factors, including poverty, the concentration of poverty, and interaction of poverty with population density.  These ‘social context’ factors do not simply move with the child. A specific child’s marginal cost in one social context setting might be quite different than in another.” “Here the authors choose to outright deny that the marginal costs of an additional low-income student in a predominantly low-income setting might be different from the marginal costs of that same student in a higher income setting, and that accommodating those costs might improve equity…. (T)his means simply ignoring a legitimate driver of the cost of providing equal opportunity and thus knowingly disadvantaging students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty, merely to preserve their dogmatic view that all funding can and should be ‘student centered.’ That is, the authors are rationalizing the maintenance of inequality, because it’s just too hard to accommodate in their pro-choice framework.”

Baker notes that ExcelinEd’s brief denies the existence of stranded costs when children leave a school district for school choice: “(T)he authors’ treatment of funding related to declining enrollment fails to comprehend institutional cost structures…. Rather, in their view, any dollar that does not travel immediately with the child is a dollar spent inequitably and/or inefficiently…. (I)nstitutions providing services to the state’s children must manage fixed costs (institutional overhead, including capital stock), step costs (classroom/level site expenses, which do not vary by student), and costs which vary at the level of the individual student. All costs do not, nor can they, nor have they ever, regardless of institutional type, vary at the level of each individual student.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s promise that school choice and portable funding will contribute to equity: “The brief’s central premise is that adopting ‘student-centered’ funding to enable parental choice of schools necessarily leads to a fairer and more transparent system for financing children’s schooling…. (T)he brief is predicated on the wrong assumption that most if not all state school finance systems and district budgeting models… operate in a way that favors institutions (and adult interests) over children.”

“Finally, to the extent that the end goal is to increase choice, it should be noted that increasing choices among different types of operators, with different financial and student service incentives, and different institutional cost structures and resource access, tends to erode, not enhance equity.  That is, increased choice in common spaces often leads to increasingly unequal choices.”

Indiana Privatizes Education: Daniels, Pence, DeVos, Bush, and a Red-State Tea Party Tide

In his fine book, the One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes Indiana—a state that became all-Red as its House of Representatives turned Republican in the 2010 Tea Party wave—as “one of the models of corporate-backed education reform.”

Lafer continues: “Between 2011 and 2015 legislators in the Hoosier state adopted new statutes restricting teachers’ right to collective bargaining, expanding both charter schools and vouchers, authorizing online education, lowering certification standards, requiring that teacher evaluations be based on student test scores, and replacing across-the-board pay increases with merit pay that is reserved for those with the highest test scores and often comes in the form of a onetime bonus rather than a permanent raise.” (p. 147)

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, covers this political transformation of Indiana in a fascinating short piece that you may have missed during the holidays. Burris explores the history of Indiana’s journey from solid, widespread support for its public schools to the undermining of that consensus by corporate leaders and politicians like Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.

Burris describes a 1996, after dinner conversation convened by Steve Hilbert—an insurance giant—at his estate. The conversation, led by Mike Pence, included Mitch Daniels, then an executive at Eli Lily, Fred Klipsch, a business leader, and Mickey Mauer of the Indianapolis Business Journal: “In the years that followed, three of those dinner guests—Daniels, Pence and Klipsch—would be major players in the quest to privatize traditional public education in Indiana. Daniels, who was governor from 2005-2013, would earn national recognition for his methodical and persistent undermining of public schools and their teachers in the name of reform. Pence would follow Daniels as governor, pushing privatization even further.  Pence would award even more tax dollars to charter schools and make Indiana’s voucher program one of the largest in the country. Klipsch would start and run a political action committee, Hoosiers for Economic Growth… that would play a major role in creating a Republican majority in the Indiana House to redistrict the state to assure future Republican control.”

Here is how Burris describes the transformation that had taken place by 2017 when she visited Indiana: “In 1996… there were no charter schools in Indiana, nor were there virtual schools or vouchers.  Neighborhood public schools served communities in a state that had always taken a ‘liberal and leading role’ in providing public education for its children. When I visited the state 21 years later, public schools were reeling from 15 years of relentless attack.  I found public schools engaged in fierce competition with each other, charter schools, virtual schools and voucher schools for students and the ‘backpack funding’ that came with them. Entire public school systems in Indiana cities, such as Muncie and Gary, had been decimated by funding losses, even as a hodgepodge of ineffective charter and voucher schools sprang up to replace them. Charter school closings and sandals were commonplace, with failing charters sometimes flipped into failing voucher schools.”

According to Burris, Governor Mitch Daniels led a compliant legislature to starve the public schools and create incentives for privatization: “Under the guise of property tax reform, Daniels seized control of school funding by legislating that the state would pay the largest share of district costs known as the general fund, while giving localities the responsibility for paying for debt service, capital projects, transportation and bus replacement. Daniels and the legislature also made sure that districts would be hamstrung in raising their local share by capping property taxes so that they could not exceed 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. The poorer the town, the less money the district could raise.” All this undermined the poorest school districts. “It also made districts entirely dependent on the whims of the legislature. General funding would become ‘an annual unknown.'”

Burris also shares what was driving Indiana’s political swing to the right—what was happening behind the scenes as the Michigan DeVos family began investing in Indiana school policy lobbying, and Florida’s Jeb Bush and his advocacy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, exported his pet priorities, including an A-F school district rating scheme that awarded low grades to the state’s poorest school districts.

In a major 2013 address, Fred Klipsch—of the 1996 after-dinner conversation Burris describes at the beginning of her story— credited his PAC with the 2010 election of a super-Republican-majority in the Indiana House which made possible the passage of a mass of education reforms in 2011. Burris adds: “What he does not mention to his audience was that the PAC of Betsy DeVos, now the Trump administration’s education secretary, kicked in a huge amount of the cash beginning in 2010… (I)n 2010,  the Hoosiers for Economic Growth PAC received $285,000 in contributions from DeVos’s American Federation for Children Fund.”  The DeVos family also gave and has continued giving,  “with their PAC’s contributing at least $1.29 million to the Hoosier PAC to date… DeVos family members have also made $1.6 million in direct contributions to Indiana politicians and political causes since 2004, and nearly $2 million in nonprofit grant money, with most of the money going to Klipsch projects.”

Burris concludes: “It is not surprising… that after securing a Republican supermajority in the legislature, Daniels jammed through an education agenda crafted behind the scenes by GOP power brokers. Nor is it surprising that Jeb Bush, whose education reform organizations were heavily subsidized by the DeVos family, would come to the state to give advice.” In May of 2011, Daniels and the Republican-dominated legislature enacted what Burris calls “the broadest voucher program in the country.” “By the end of his term, Daniel’s rhetoric regarding public education was openly hostile  Public schools were called government schools. He referred to attending a public school without the ability to have a voucher as an incarceration.”

Burris promises to follow up on this story by tracing the further expansion of school privatization during the administration of the governor who followed Mitch Daniels: our current U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence.

Betsy DeVos: The Second of Her Two Top Accomplishments This Year

Yesterday this blog explored Betsy DeVos’s greatest accomplishment during her first year as U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos did not invent school choice, and certainly school privatization had been underway through vouchers and the proliferation of charter schools before she was appointed. Her biggest accomplishment during this year, however, has been to use her position to promote privatization and solidify a narrative that undermines confidence in and support for the public schools her federal department is supposed to oversee.

In her second primary accomplishment: By reducing federal rules and regulations, DeVos has diminished the Education Department’s capacity to protect the rights of students in K-12 public schools and college students with federally backed loans.  Cuts to regulations in the Department of Education have been quietly moving forward.

Here are Education Week‘s David Bloomfield and Alan Aja commenting on what has happened to rules and regulations in DeVos’s Department this year: “Since taking office last February, the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has eliminated dozens of education directives to school officials… The unprecedented cleansing and revisions of Department of Education guidance to states, school districts, and private schools is passed off largely as a response to President Donald Trump’s simplistic Jan. 30 executive order that agencies remove two regulatory documents for every one issued. Even if, as has been reported, large swaths of the documents the department has eliminated so far have been out-of-date or superfluous, other guidance revisions have grave implications for marginalized students. The department’s headline-making withdrawal of Obama-era policy guidance permitting transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities is just one such example.

The Department also relaxed rules intended to protect students who file complaints about sexual assault. On September 22, the Detroit Free Press‘s Todd Spangler reported: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today scrapped a six-year-old guidance intended to better protect victims of sexual misconduct on college campuses, replacing it with an interim rule she says is meant to strike a more appropriate balance between those accused of sexual misdeeds and their accusers… In 2011, then-President Barack Obama’s administration issued a guidance to colleges and universities reminding them of their responsibilities to investigate and respond to allegations of sexual misconduct under Title IX… The new Q&A circulated today takes a different tack: While it allows colleges and universities to decide whether to continue using a lesser ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard in deciding claims, it also permits them to move to a tougher ‘clear and convincing evidence standard’ if they so choose.”  A spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center is reported worrying: “It will discourage students from reporting assaults, create uncertainty for schools on how to follow the law and make campuses less safe… This misguided directive is a huge step back to a time when sexual assault was a secret that was swept under the rug.”

In mid-December, the NY Times‘ Erica Green reported on a Department of Education proposal to delay and possibly scrap a rule that has “required states to look at districts that had disproportionately high numbers of minority students identified for special education services, segregated in restrictive classroom settings or disciplined at higher rates than their peers… The rule was designed to address concerns about the overrepresentation of minority students in special education.”  DeVos’s staff have claimed that because almost half of the nation’s school districts have a disproportionate number of minority students in special education, enforcing the rule would be too expensive.

In July, POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reported that Betsy DeVos had announced she planned to return the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights “to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency.” Emma quotes DeVos, explaining in a letter to Senator Patty Murray that the Office for Civil Rights during the Obama years “descended into a pattern of overreaching, of setting out to punish or embarrass institutions…”  DeVos explains that the Obama Office for Civil Rights “all too often handled individual complaints as evidence of systematic institutional violations.”  DeVos declares that her department will speed up processing of complaints by examining only the particular circumstances of each complaint but will no longer examine the circumstances to look for patterns of civil rights violation.  For ProPublica, Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman add that the Obama Office for Civil Rights, by contrast, required civil rights investigators “to obtain three years of complaint data from a specific school or district to assess compliance with civil rights law.”

Many college loans are federally guaranteed, but in recent weeks the Department has proposed new rules that make it harder for students to present claims that their colleges have defrauded them. The first rule DeVos’s Department seeks to change is known as “borrowers’ defense to repayment.” Here is Michael Stratford for POLITICO: “The Trump administration is considering a significantly stricter standard for when federal student loan borrowers defrauded by their colleges can have their debt forgiven. Borrowers applying for loan forgiveness would face a higher burden of proof and have to individually present evidence that their college’s deception was intentional under a draft proposal circulated by the Education Department… The draft proposal, like the Obama-era plan, calls for loan forgiveness when a college engages in misrepresentation. But it would eliminate a category of claims based on a college breaching its contract with a student.”  Stratford quotes Clare McCann, of the New America Foundation: “‘They’ve made it almost impossible for borrowers to meet the misrepresentation standard by requiring them to demonstrate the intent of the school especially when students don’t have the power of discovery’ to examine the inner workings of a school,’ said Clare McCann… ‘They took every dial and dialed to the far extreme. It really tries to make the regulation as useless as possible.'”

DeVos’s attempt to make it harder for student borrowers to pursue claims that they were defrauded under the “borrowers’ defense to repayment rule” is related to the Obama administration’s crackdown on two predatory, for-profit colleges. Two institutions were shut down, and thousands of their students have created a backlog of applications for loan forgiveness. The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports that several state attorneys general have sued the DeVos’s Department of Education on behalf of thousands of of students whose claims are unresolved: “The Education Department can discharge federal student loans when a college uses illegal tactics to persuade students to borrow money.  The agency acts under a federal statute known as borrower defense to repayment.  The agency has been inundated with applications from former students of defunct for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes. Both spent their final days enveloped in state and federal investigations and lawsuits over alleged fraud, deceptive marketing and steering students into predatory loans.”

DeVos has also delayed the implementation of provisions of another rule, known as “the gainful-employment rule,” which was instituted by the Obama administration to penalize mostly for-profit colleges and trade schools whose students graduate with a disproportionate amount of debt upon graduation compared to their likely salaries.  Under the rule, colleges would have to inform prospective students that their earnings would be unlikely to enable them to pay off their loans. Here is the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explaining how the “gainful employment rule” was supposed to work: “Gainful employment requires that action be taken—including possible expulsion from the federal student aid program—against vocational programs whose graduates leave with heavy student loan debt. Ninety-eight percent of the programs that officials found to have failed to meet those standards are offered by for-profit colleges.”

Government regulations are intended to protect the public. The systematic elimination of oversight by the Department of Education is affecting extremely vulnerable students—children who need special education services—students experiencing discrimination because of their race or sexual orientation—students who have been sexually abused—students who have borrowed thousands of dollars for college only to discover that institutions in which they enrolled misrepresented their program—students whose college has been closed and other colleges will not accept credits the students have earned.

Betsy DeVos is undermining the U.S. Department of Education’s capacity to protect the civil rights of children and adolescents at school.  And she is undermining the economic future of young adults who discover they can no longer pursue their claims for loan forgiveness when the colleges they were attending have defrauded them or closed.

Betsy DeVos: The First of Her Two Top Accomplishments This Year

Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, has been circulating a New Year’s resolution and asking people endorse it and send it on to their legislators and anyone who has a role in making education policy. The resolution was written by Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association, who adapted it from a statement of the Network for Public Education  (See pp. 47-48 of the NPE Report)

I BELIEVE that public education is the pillar of our democracy. I believe in the common school envisioned by Horace Mann. A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual orientation or learning ability. All may enroll – regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before.

I BELIEVE that taxpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and that funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community. I also believe that taxpayers have the right to examine how schools use tax dollars to educate children.

I BELIEVE that such schools should be accountable to the community they serve, and that community residents have the right and responsibility to elect those who govern the school. Citizens also have the right to insist that schooling be done in a manner that best serves the needs of all children.

In so stating these beliefs, I will do whatever I can to support and promote public education in Ohio.

What seems amazing to me about the project of asking people to endorse and send this resolution to policy makers is that, as we begin 2018, it seems so urgently necessary. When my own children were in elementary school in the late 1980s—a time when I was working hard to help pass school levies in my community and when I first met Bill Phillis, who was then assistant superintendent of public instruction here in Ohio—such a resolution would have seemed more than a little strange. At that time most people merely assumed that one sent one’s children to the public elementary to which they were assigned and the designated middle school and high school.  As a parent in the 1980s and early 1990s, I did not fully appreciate the right to public education; I merely took it for granted.

Betsy DeVos, who has been the U.S. Secretary of Education for a year, did not invent school choice, and certainly school privatization had been underway through vouchers and the proliferation of charter schools before she was appointed.  But her biggest accomplishment during this year has been to use her position to undermine confidence in and support for the public schools her federal department is supposed to oversee.

Betsy DeVos is perhaps our society’s longest and most experienced lobbyist for school choice—her life’s cause and the object of her lavish philanthropy that has supported organizations including the American Federation for Children, EdChoice, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, National School Choice Week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and the Great Lakes Education Project.

While Betsy DeVos has long supported the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which churns out model bills for school privatization, this year DeVos has not succeeded in delivering a federal school voucher program. Neither did she succeed in getting a large tuition tax credit program or education savings account program inserted, as many had feared she would, into the tax overhaul Congress passed in December. There is an expansion of what are called 529 college savings accounts on which the interest is tax-free, enabling people with such accounts to use them to pay not only for college but also for private school tuition, but this will affect only the very wealthy who can afford such accounts.

The deepest damage is what DeVos has inflicted through her relentless story about parental choice. DeVos has doggedly disparaged public schools. Ignoring that, by definition, justice must be systemic, she has attacked our education system as a bureaucracy unresponsive to parents and the needs of  “individual” (her favorite word) children.  That government’s primary role is protecting the rights of vulnerable children through laws and the enforcement of the laws through democratic governance is meaningless to DeVos.  She assumes parents will shop around until they find ideal services for each of their children; if one school doesn’t work, parents ought to merely try another one. DeVos carefully avoids acknowledging that privatized schools can find ways to select the most appealing children and push out the students they don’t want to serve. She obliviously ignores the arithmetic problems when taxes are cut and at the same time the public would find itself paying for charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all out of the old but diminished public school budget.

You may not accept Betsy DeVos’s argument for the glories of school choice. But I suspect that more than last January, you just sigh. On some level haven’t we all just begun to accept that more privatization—along with the lack of protection for vulnerable students and the expense of funding several kinds of education—is just the way things are these days.

Please don’t give up. Read the principles in the resolution from the Network for Public Education via Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association. I suspect that although your fatalism makes you fear that Betsy DeVos’s view is winning the day, you really still agree with the resolution.  Your first and most important action is to consider it and decide whether the principles remain important.  After that, send it to at least one policy maker. Take out the word ” in Ohio” at the end, and send it to Senator Patty Murray, for example, the ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  She and her staff would be delighted to know that she has your support as she continues to push back against DeVos and other Republicans who relentlessly promote the nonsense of privatization.