Your editor had little hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would demonstrate competence — as she didn’t do during January’s hearing before a U.S. Senate panel — after last month’s confirmation by the full body. Nor did I think she would be able to stand up successfully and strongly on behalf of our most-vulnerable children against those in the current administration who mean to do harm against them.
Based on events of the last two weeks, both my suspicions and those of other reformers have been confirmed. Which is why the movement (and those within it who are still committed to building brighter futures for all our children) will have to work zealously on the behalf of our youth.
The DeVos regime demonstrated a stunning lack of basic public relations savvy earlier this week when the Department of Education issued a press release on the current administration’s new executive order on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that served as a tool for its messaging on expanding school choice.
The agency could have simply stated that the executive order, meaningless as it is (because no additional money would be provided to those institutions), is an important move to make on Black History Month because it affirms the important role universities such as Howard and Wilberforce have played in helping generations of Black people access higher education and oppose the racialism that is America’s Original Sin. Instead, in a politically tone-deaf manner DeVos and her staff used it opportunistically to tout the administration’s other priorities, declaring that HBCUs “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”.
The outrage over the remarks, both from traditionalists and many civil rights-oriented reformers, as well as Black people in general, could have been easily anticipated. After all, HBCUs didn’t come to existence because of the desire for higher-quality options, but because southern universities (especially public universities funded by the tax dollars of African Americans) wouldn’t allow young Black adults to sit in their classrooms. More-importantly, while a case can be made for the role of HBCUs as a form of choice in higher education, Black History Month is just not the time to do that. All DeVos did was make it even more-difficult for Black reformers and others to support the expansion of high-quality school options our children need and deserve.
All of this could have been avoided if one of DeVos’ appointees made a call to any number of Black school reformers, especially those who aren’t tied to the American Enterprise Institute or the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A call to DeVos’ predecessor, John King (now at the Education Trust) or even yours truly would have sufficed. Or better yet, talk to any of the Black people working in the Department of Education’s headquarters on Maryland Avenue. This didn’t happen, because of incompetence in handling public relations (a key tool for the agency’s task of overseeing federal education policy), along with a lack of concern for the families and communities of Black children.
The good news, or so it seems, is that DeVos didn’t repeat that error in this morning’s USA Today op-ed touting the meager efforts done so far by the current administration.
Meanwhile DeVos’ inability to stand strongly on behalf of the most-vulnerable became clear last week when unsuccessfully fought now-embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rest of the current administration over its move to repeal the Obama Administration’s executive order requiring traditional districts and other public school operators to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.
The directive, which was issued last year after North Carolina interfered in the decisions of cities and districts by banning any accommodation of transgendered youth, was helpful in protecting those children from bullying, but engendered the ire of those ideological conservatives who both oppose gay rights as well as felt that the Obama Administration shouldn’t have enforced the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of school-age children.
As Politico‘s Caitlin Emma reported, DeVos pushed for a “more-cautious” approach on rolling back the guidance, asking for a comment period that would allow gay rights activists and others to at least offer feedback before the administration made its long-stated goal a reality. One source told Emma that DeVos mindful of the criticism she received during the confirmation for her family’s support of gay conversion therapies and opposition to gay marriage, didn’t want to roll back the rules at all.
But she could not beat back Sessions, long an opponent of enforcing the federal government’s civil rights role, who wanted to roll back the rules before the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal in G.G. v. Gloucester County, which involves a district’s decision to not accommodate a 17-year-old’s use of the men’s restroom at a local high school. At the end of the day, the current administration once again proved itself unwilling to do the right thing by vulnerable children.
The inability of DeVos to fight strongly on behalf of our children in this role should surprise no one. As Dropout Nation noted back in November, DeVos refused to condemn then-President-Elect Donald Trump for his campaign of race-baiting and bigotry. Instead of condemning him for speaking ill of the families of Muslim, Black, and undocumented immigrant children, she expressed her willingness to work with the administration. Any effort she may mount on behalf of vulnerable youth was bound to be weak.
The fact that the current administration is hostile to the communities and families to which these children belong also makes it difficult for even the few good people who may be within it to stand up on their behalf. After all, one of the first actions this administration took was to essentially bar Muslim refugees from seven countries (including children fleeing war-torn Syria as well as five-year-olds seeking surgery and medical help) from entering the United States. The move, since struck down by a federal appellate court panel, is part of the long-term ideological goal by President Trump’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, to rid the nation of immigrants and socioeconomic minorities who aren’t Caucasian. [The executive order enacting the Muslim ban also barred refugee children from Central American nations from entering the country.] American public education will be as much a front as immigration in their racialist efforts.
The current administration isn’t standing alone in this. As seen in November, there is a significant number of Americans, most of them White (and sadly, many of them calling themselves Christian), who are perfectly happy to support those measures. As much driven by the desire to support policies that harm their fellow human beings as well as by their nativist fears of America becoming increasingly more diverse and less-White, they welcome the current administration’s efforts.
Also in the current administration’s amen corner: Many of those who call themselves conservative school reformers. While those so-called reformers may attempt to distance themselves from the worst of its more-noxious ideas, they are perfectly willing to support any effort by the administration to roll back the federal role in education policy (so long as it continues to support the expansion of school choice). This includes the Obama Administration’s efforts to stop districts and charters from overusing out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that damage the futures of black and other minority children.
For the reformers who remain focused on building brighter futures for children, the fight will only get harder as the current administration remains in office. They cannot expect DeVos or her appointees, regardless of any personal relationships, to be supportive in any way that will actually be helpful. So the movement must focus on advancing systemic reform in spite of DeVos’ presence or that of the administration.
This starts with the regulatory process, which includes administrative rule-making and the various comment periods during which regulations and other policies are red-lined (or rewritten and amended). The current administration will work hard to shut out civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers. But those reformers can easily use laws requiring public input to expose any efforts to weaken xisting systemic reforms as well as beat back any efforts to dismantle important data systems such as the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Concerns about the future of the latter is one reason why a coalition of groups, including Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, Teach for America and the Education Trust, issued a letter this week demanding that the data system remains comprehensive and intact.
None of what has been done so far by DeVos or this administration has been shocking or surprising. Nor should reformers be stunned. It will only get worse. Which means reformers must get to work.