Betsy DeVos Says Discrimination Isn’t Her Problem. And She's Dead Wrong.

May 25, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Matt Lehrich

Give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos points for ideological consistency. In a budget hearing yesterday, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) pressed DeVos on whether her plan for school choice would allow federal dollars to flow to private schools even if they discriminate against LGBT students. DeVos offered her standard fare in response: those choices would be up to states. But Clark followed up: “…there’s no situation of discrimination or exclusion that…you would step in and say that’s not how we’re going to use our federal dollars?” DeVos couldn’t think of one. Here was the United States Secretary of Education saying that if a state wanted to give federal dollars to a private school that only admitted White students, that would be fine by her. Want to reject any student who’s gay or Jewish or has a disability? That’s ok too, she was implying. We’re just here to dole out the cash. Of course, such a scheme would never hold up in court. But it laid bare the moral vacuity of the commonly-professed view that the federal government should just get out of the way and let states figure it out. The exchange reminded me of one between former Secretary of Education John King (for whom I worked at the time) and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC). Burr—who was born in the pre-civil rights era south and represents a state that’s had multiple discriminatory actions struck down this year—asked King why the federal government didn’t trust states and districts to solve all of students’ problems. King—a former history teacher—had barely begun his response when Burr thought better of the question and moved on. Had King been given the chance to finish answering, he undoubtedly would have reminded Burr of our nation’s long and shameful history of trampling civil rights under the banner of states’ rights. Indeed, in defending his infamous decision to deploy the National Guard to keep Black students out of Little Rock’s White high school, then-governor Orval Faubus declared, “I was not elected governor of Arkansas to surrender all our rights as citizens to an all-powerful federal autocracy.” These days, most advocates for a laissez faire federal approach to education have Burr’s good sense not to follow the theory to its logical conclusion. As such, DeVos’ statement (or lack thereof) on discrimination will likely be treated in Washington as a verbal gaffe. It shouldn’t.

Students Need an Ed Secretary Who Will Stand Up and Speak Out

First, it was a more honest assessment of the anti-federal approach to education than is usually offered. Moreover, for DeVos to blithely ignore the relevant history is perfectly in line with her viewing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as pioneers of school choice—a breathtaking denial of one of the most painful moments of American history. It calls into question her ability to uphold one of the most basic and fundamental responsibilities of her job: protecting all students’ equal right to an education. Second, DeVos’ admission is a boon to opponents of her voucher scheme. Even many of us who have generally supported expanding school choice through high-quality, public charter schools already harbor deep concerns about public dollars funding private schools. Chief among those, whether those dollars might be used to bankroll discrimination. Now, DeVos has all but confirmed they could. [pullquote position="right"]It's a scary time in American history for millions of students.[/pullquote] Families are being torn apart by immigration raids on school grounds. States are passing laws to make LGBT students feel unwelcome. Poor students are at risk of losing their meals and their health care. If this administration has taught us anything, it’s to take our leaders’ warnings about their plans seriously. Those vulnerable students deserve a secretary of education who will stand up and speak out for them; not one who thinks fighting discrimination is someone else’s responsibility.

Matt Lehrich

Matt Lehrich is a former White House spokesman and U.S. Department of Education communications director.

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