This past Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the Department of Education to implement borrower rules introduced by the Obama administration that were designed to protect students defrauded by for-profit colleges. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – more interested in protecting the bottom line of predatory institutions over students saddled with massive debt and worthless degrees – was trying to block their implementation.
The ruling was a major victory for student loan forgiveness and was initiated by officeholders who joined forces to file the suit against the DOE in federal court. They weren’t governors, U.S. senators or representatives. This was the action of state attorneys general (AGs) – 20 of them to be exact – who stopped a punitive and unlawful DeVos maneuver in its tracks.
“We took her to court and we won,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy said in a tweet.
Elections for attorneys general tend to fall a bit under the radar. They’re usually labelled “down-ballot races,” overshadowed by gubernatorial and congressional contests. The GOP currently hold a slim advantage, 27 AGs to the Democrats’ 22 (Alaska’s is independent). There are 30 races on the ballot this year, with closely-watched races in Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada.
The stakes are high because the scope of AGs’ influence, authority and jurisdiction has increased significantly in recent years, making the balance of power among AG ranks nationwide a more closely watched outcome on November 6 than it has been in the past.
“We ignore these races at our peril, because state attorneys general are different from other public offices,” Terri Gerstein, a labor and worklife fellow at Harvard University, wrote recently in The Hill. “They can be an essential and unique bulwark against the Trump administration’s excesses, in crucial ways.”
Name the issue – civil rights, education, worker’s rights, gun violence, health care, protecting undocumented students – many AGs have been on the front lines protecting their constituents. The pushback against Betsy DeVos’ DOE has been unrelenting. In addition to the action on student loan forgiveness, 11 AGs in August, urged DeVos not to rescind Obama-era guidance on school discipline that de-emphasized exclusionary methods.
In a letter to the DOE, the law enforcement officials wrote:
Exclusionary discipline harms students. Additionally, discrimination contributes to a racial gap in administration of this discipline. The Guidance was issued to help schools address just these issues, and to rescind it now despite continuing disparities and other challenges would be counterproductive and harm our students, our schools, and our States.
Many attorneys general are also advocating real solutions to gun safety, rejecting the Trump/DeVos proposal to arm educators. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring recently informed a rural school district that its plan to allow teachers and other school staff to carry firearms on school grounds would violate state law. “Our kids deserve a safe, secure learning environment when they come to school, and adding guns and armed, unqualified personnel to our classrooms is incompatible with that goal,” Herring said in a statement.
Although the reach of their authority differs state-to-state, attorneys general can take these strong actions because they are unencumbered by red tape or endless committee meetings.
As Sean Shaw, 2018 candidate for Attorney General of Florida, told U.S News and World Report: “It’s so free from interference. You can just sue and go after people. You don’t have to run it up any flagpole or get a committee to do anything. You just do it.”
If Shaw is elected, educators in Florida can count on him to use this authority to look out for the best interests of students. The Florida Education Association endorsed Shaw in June, saying the lawmaker had “proven himself a friend of public education” during the two sessions he served in the Florida House. “We look forward to lending our support to an individual who believes in public education and will use the office of attorney general to support strong public schools,” FEA President Joanne McCall said.
In Ohio, educators have thrown their support behind Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney and son of a teacher. If he is elected state attorney general, Dettelbach has promised to address the corruption that turned Ohio into the “wild, wild west” of unaccountable, fraudulent charter schools, namely the notorious and now-defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools.
Dettelbach understands that education is “the great equalizer and strengthens Ohio’s communities and economy,” says Becky Higgins, President of the Ohio Education Association. “Who we elect as attorney general matters for the future of public education.”
Which is why for educators in Ohio and across the nation, this so-called “down-ballot” race for attorney general may be the most important vote they cast on November 6.
“Maybe everything that matters doesn’t happen inside the Beltway, after all,” Terri Gerstein wrote in The Hill. “We need to mobilize aggressively this coming November, yes, for the midterms, but also for state attorney general races. If we want to preserve our country’s core values, we need the people’s lawyers more than ever.”
By Timothy Walker