It wasn’t much of a welcoming party. In January 2017, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement urging the U.S. Senate to reject Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Education Secretary, writing that “in both ideology and practice she has violated the principles of quality education that the AAUP has defended for over a century.” They weren’t alone in their objections.
National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García wrote that DeVos “is unqualified and lacks the experience in public education that Americans expect from their secretary of education.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a fact sheet warning of DeVos’ financial contributions to “organizations that seek to limit women’s reproductive freedom,” her support for an organization that works to overturn affirmative action legislation, and her anti-LGBTQ stance.
Despite the pushback from these major organizations and numerous politicians and educators, DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) on February 7, 2017. A year later, many of her higher education policy decisions remain contentious for students’ rights advocates both inside and outside the DOE.
Title IX Policy Change
In one of DeVos’ most controversial actions, for example, existing Title IX protocol for handling campus sexual assault allegations was replaced with temporary guidelines that many believe make it more difficult for victims to seek justice against assailants. The policy change, which took effect in September, gives schools the option to employ a standard that imposes a greater burden of proof on victims of campus sexual assault in seeking justice through institutional reporting systems.
Some victims’ rights advocates argue that raising the burden of proof will discourage survivors of sexual assault from coming forward. In January 2018, advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against DeVos and the DOE in a U.S. District Court, calling for the court to vacate DeVos’ 2017 Title IX policy changes. The suit cites the new policy’s “chilling effect” on reporting of sexual violence and states that the changes are “based on a legally and factually mistaken view that earlier guidance limited due process protections for students.”
Student Loan Protections
DeVos’ rollback of existing DOE policy also impacts financial protections for students. In June 2017, she delayed two Obama-era rules intended to protect students from misleading borrowing practices and predatory for-profit colleges shortly before they were scheduled to take effect on July 1. The Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule allowed students who believed they had been defrauded by their colleges to apply for loan forgiveness. The second rule required colleges to prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation” in order to receive federal student aid.
Eighteen states filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court against DeVos and the DOE for delaying the Borrower Defense rule. Included among the many objections was the concern that it would disproportionately affect African American and Latino students who, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, are overrepresented at for-profit institutions. Facing public backlash, DeVos offered partial relief to defrauded borrowers just before the end of the year.
The delay of the Borrower Defense and Gainful Employment rules was upsetting to those within the DOE as well, says a staff member. “Pulling back the Gainful Employment rules was one of the biggest upsets for everyone … [The rules] went through years of debate and litigation, and we finally had something that would protect students from enrolling in programs that cost a ton of money and did nothing for their future earnings. It’s cost taxpayers a ton of money to develop, negotiate, and implement that rule, and all those efforts have been wasted because the data are only available for two or three years.”
Concerns About Affirmative Action
DeVos also created controversy in February 2017 when she called Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) “real pioneers when it comes to free choice.” She quickly backed away from her statement, telling a gathering of HBCU leaders that “HBCUs have always been more than simply institutions of higher learning. You have long represented a challenge to the status quo, starting by providing a necessary opportunity to African Americans following the Civil War.”
This comment, however, and a leaked memo from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have caused some critics to question DeVos’ understanding of the challenges facing students of color. The memo indicated that the DOJ is shifting toward “investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants,” according to The New York Times, which leaked the document in August. Asked by the Associated Press about the memo, DeVos declined to comment directly. She also sidestepped when asked about her position on affirmative action.
Transgender Bathroom Access in Schools
Groups that support the rights of LGBTQ students are also concerned about DeVos’ policy changes. In February 2017, DeVos withdrew existing guidance that required schools to allow students to use the bathroom and locker room that match their gender identity. “The guidance was helpful to schools, including colleges and universities, in that it clearly told them what they needed to do to be in compliance with federal civil rights law,” says Mia Jacobs, an ACLU spokesperson.
The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a memo in June that failed to include bathroom access as one of the issues over which the OCR has jurisdiction. The HuffPost reported that over the last several months, multiple complaints brought by transgender students were dismissed by the OCR. Then in February 2018, the DOE confirmed it would no longer be investigating such civil rights complaints.
DeVos’ Report Cards: Grade ‘F’
As DeVos heads into her second year, education advocates and organizations aren’t letting up. In February, a coalition of organizations, including the NEA, Color Change, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Journey for Justice Alliance presented more than 80,000 report cards to DeVos from students, parents, educators and community members communicating both reviews of her performance and suggestions for better support. “We’ve had a year of Betsy DeVos and her schemes to undermine great public schools. It’s time we let her know exactly how she’s failed our students,” said the NEA website.
When the coalition leaders showed up at the DOE to deliver the report cards, they were locked out of the building despite having informed the agency they would be coming and requesting an appointment.
Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, told the protestors gathered outside, “They knew that teachers and parents and students from all over the country have actually taken their time to say what is going on in their schools. And here, on Betsy DeVos’ anniversary, this is the first time that I have ever been to this building where we were not let in — where the educators, where the students, where the parents of America were locked out of the federal Department of Education.”●
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The DOE did not return INSIGHT ’s request for comment. This article published in our April 2018 Issue.