Betsy DeVos seems to be confused about her job.
As U.S. Secretary of Education, she is responsible for upholding the civil rights of all U.S. students.
She is NOT a paid lobbyist for the school privatization industry.
Yet when asked point blank by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) whether her department would ensure that private schools receiving federal school vouchers don’t discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, she refused to give a straight answer.
She said that the these schools would be required to follow all federal antidiscrimination laws but her department would not issue any clarifications or directives about exactly how they should be doing it.
“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle,” DeVos said at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education yesterday.
“I think you just said where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect, please correct it for the record,” Merkley replied.
DeVos did not correct him.
Instead she simply repeated, “Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law, period.”
Merkley said she was dodging the question.
“I think that’s very important for the public to know, that today, the secretary of education, before this committee, refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or would ban discrimination based on religion,” he said.
“Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form,” DeVos replied.
But that doesn’t mean she’ll fight against it.
She held firm to her position that it is not her job as Secretary of Education to fight for students’ civil rights. That is the responsibility of Congress and the courts.
But she’s wrong.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is part of the Department of Education.
According to the department’s own Website, the “OCR’s mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.”
There is nothing “unsettled” about that at all. What IS unsettled is how and if the U.S. Constitution allows federal funds to be spent on private schools in any manner whatsoever.
At very least, it has been argued that giving tax dollars to parochial schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment guaranteeing a separation of church and state. Moreover, the degree to which voucher schools that don’t explicitly teach religion would have to abide by federal laws about what they can and should do is likewise “unsettled.”
Yet DeVos has no problem advocating for the school privatization industry. In fact, it has been her lifelong calling. As a billionaire Republican mega-donor, that’s exactly what she’s done for years – shoving bundles of cash at candidates and lawmakers to support school vouchers and charter schools.
Someone needs to remind her that that is no longer her role. In her official capacity as Secretary of Education, her job is not to advocate for school choice. But it IS her job to protect students’ civil rights – regardless of the type of school those students attend.
If a school is at all public, she is responsible for ensuring those students’ rights. And receiving public funds makes a school public.
Specifically, she is responsible for ensuring no child is discriminated against on the basis of race, color and national origin, according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This includes protecting children who are being treated unfairly due to limited understanding of the English language or who are still learning to speak the language. This includes children experiencing bigotry as a result of their shared ancestry, ethnicity or religion such as Muslims, Sikhs or Jews.
It is also her job to protect children from sexual discrimination as per Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. No matter her own personal conservative views, she must protect pregnant teens or teen parents. And to speak toward Merkley’s point, according to the Department’s Website, this explicitly includes, “…sex stereotypes (such as treating persons differently because they do not conform to sex-role expectations or because they are attracted to or are in relationships with persons of the same sex); and gender identity or transgender status.”
She is also required to be a champion of students with disabilities as per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Moreover, Title II explicitly forbids public entities – whether or not they receive federal funds – from demonstrating any partiality against students with disabilities.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She has to protect against age discrimination per the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and enforce the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act. She is responsible for investigating complaints about equal access to youth groups conducting meetings at public schools and/or that receive federal funding.
To quote the Website, one more time:
“These civil rights laws extend to all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries and museums that receive federal financial assistance from ED [the Education Department].”
I’m not so sure DeVos understand this – at all.
Nor do I expect her to get much help from the political ideologues she’s using to staff the department.
Take her choice for Assistant Secretary in the Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson.
She’s an ANTI-Civil Rights activist. She literally doesn’t believe in the office she’s running.
The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!
She once filed a complaint against her prestigious college, Stanford University, for discriminating against her rights as a rich, white person by refusing to allow her access to free minority tutoring.
For all its faults, the Barack Obama administration took civil rights seriously. So much so that conservatives often criticized the Democratic organization as being overzealous in the execution of its duties.
The Obama era Education Department issued so many clarifications of the law that it received a record number of civil rights complaints. This required hundreds of additional lawyers and investigators and increasing the civil rights division by 30 percent.
Complaints went from more than six thousand in 2009 to almost ten thousand in 2015. Of these, the largest increase was in complaints of sex discrimination.
However, President Donald Trump has recommended the Department be downsized in his budget proposal.
The Reality TV star would cut the Department’s budget by 13 percent, or $9 billion, eliminating after-school and summer programming for kids and professional development for teachers. Instead, he would invest $250 million in a school voucher incentive program and an additional $168 million for charter schools.
Also, getting a boost is personal security for DeVos, herself. She is spending an additional $1 million a month for U.S. Marshalls to guard her against protesters.
It should come as no surprise that Trump and DeVos don’t support the mission of the Department of Education. Both have expressed interest in disbanding the office altogether.
In a February magazine interview, DeVos said, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job. But I’m not sure that – I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”
Likewise, Trump wrote in his 2015 book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” that “if we don’t eliminate [the department] completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”
That is exactly what DeVos is doing.
Under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, it could be argued the Department was guilty of overreach. But Trump and DeVos are going in the opposite extreme.
Someone has to look out for students’ civil rights. That someone has traditionally been the Department of Education. With DeVos abdicating her responsibilities and continuing her role as a school privatization cheerleader, it is anyone’s guess who – if anyone – will step into the void.