by Félix Pérez
This Wednesday Betsy DeVos will mark her first year as President Trump’s education secretary. The first cabinet nominee in the nation’s history to require a tie-breaking vote by a vice president, DeVos remains steadfast in her advocacy for using public school funds for private school vouchers and charter schools, attacking public education, opening the door to predatory for-profit schools and rolling back student protections.
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We had an embarrassing number of choices from which to pick when compiling the top five DeVos stories, and we were forced to leave out several cringeworthy items. Here, then, in descending order, are our top 5 stories.
5. School visit ignored how vouchers fail students with disabilities
DeVos’s first visit to a school as education secretary was to a private voucher school in Florida. She and Trump ignored an inconvenient fact about the state’s voucher schools: Florida’s voucher program for special needs students, the McKay Scholarship, asks students with disabilities to waive their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA. The same limitation holds true in many other voucher states. DeVos’s oversight — or slight — came as no surprise given her admitted lack of awareness of the federal special education law at her confirmation hearing. To be clear: Under IDEA, states are required to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education in public schools and that parents are given a voice in their child’s education.
4. Refused to rule out federal funds for private schools that discriminate
At her confirmation hearing, DeVos refused to say whether she would deny federal funds to private schools that discriminate against students based on sexuality, race or special needs. In response to a question from Representative Katherine Clark whether an Indiana voucher school that denies access to students with LGBT parents would be disqualified from receiving education funds, DeVos answered, “For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that.” Pressed by Clark after DeVos’s nonanswer, DeVos said, “The bottom line is that we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s school and education decisions.”
3. Described historically Black colleges and universities as ‘pioneers of choice’
DeVos praised Historically Black Colleges and Universities as “pioneers of school choice,” a remark that bears no relationship to the truth of their origins. For many generations, HBCUs were the only choice for African American students facing racism and educational segregation. DeVos’s gross inaccuracy prompted educators and students at Bethune-Cookman University to ask the college to withdraw its invitation to DeVos to serve as as a commencement speaker. “The policies that DeVos pushes would have terrible consequences for future generations of Bethune-Cookman students — and for historically black colleges and universities themselves,” explained Fedrick Ingram, Florida Education Association vice president and a Bethune-Cookman alumnus. These policies included a proposed federal budget that cut millions of dollars for HBCUs and college access programs that help send low-income and first-generation students to HBCUs and other institutions, and $3.9 billion from Pell Grants, which a majority of HBCU students rely on to pay for tuition.
2. Slashed loan forgiveness to students defrauded by for-profit colleges
The Education Department’s plan to provide only partial loan forgiveness to some students defrauded by for-profit colleges could reduce overall payments by about 60 percent, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. DeVos approved a plan to discontinue fully wiping out the loans of students deceived by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. Student advocates say it’s wrong to hold students responsible for loans they took out to attend fradulent for-profit colleges that inflated their job-placement rates and engaged in predatory recruitment and marketing tactics. Eileen Connor, a litigator at Harvard University’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which has represented hundreds of defrauded Corinthian students, criticized the policy. “I think that is terrible. It’s another example of the Department of Education picking the side of fraudulent schools and not doing right by those who have been hurt by them,” Connor told AP. Late last year, the state attorneys general of New York, Illinois and Massachusetts sued the Trump administration and DeVos for not granting loan relief to thousands of students defrauded by Corinthian and other for-profit schools that have closed. Their complaint alleges that DeVos’s Education Department unlawfully declared some of the student loans valid, leading to forced collections from students’ paychecks. California’s state attorney general filed a parallel complaint in the U.S. District of Northern California on behalf of 13,000 Corinthian students waiting for the federal government to forgive their loans.
1. DeVos spreads her influence — and money — in 2018 governor races
There will be 36 gubernatorial elections in 2018, and some candidates have received contributions from DeVos and her family, while others are unabashed supporters of her agenda to drain scarce funding from public schools to give to private and charter schools in the form of vouchers or education tax credits. DeVos, who is extremely wealthy, has used her wealth for decades to cultivate acolytes at every level of government. This year there are a number of candidates running for governor who are followers of DeVos’s anti-public schools agenda. They include:
- Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey endorsed DeVos for education secretary. In 2014, DeVos and her husband gave Ducey about $3,000 in campaign contributions. DeVos praised Ducey last year when he signed legislation expanding vouchers.
- Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner told reporters he respects DeVos greatly. Rauner received $13,000 in campaign contributions from DeVos and her family in 2014. Rauner vetoed an education funding bill last month, saying it did not expand the number of private schools receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers.
- Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette wrote an editorial in favor of DeVos for education secretary. The DeVos family and DeVos organizations contributed at least $136,000 to Schuette’s campaigns between 2009-2014.
- Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt wants to use public school funds to expand the state’s school vouchers, or education saving accounts. The pro-voucher Nevada Federation for Children, an offshoot of the American Federation for Children, whose former chairwoman is DeVos, spent roughly $200,000 in Nevada throughout the 2016 campaign cycle, with $55,000 coming from DeVos and her husband.
- Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Wagner supports bringing DeVos’s agenda to Pennsylvania with a statewide voucher plan. Wagner also wants to eliminate benefits that educators earn, including sick days. He plans to end pensions for working educators and wants retired educators to give back 10 percent of the retirement they earned.