Editor’s Note: Mark Huelsman is an associate director for policy and research at Demos, a progressive think tank. His research focuses on college affordability, student debt, financial aid and state investment in higher education. The views expressed here are solely his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Thirty-nine years ago this week, President Jimmy Carter stood in the East Room of the White House alongside more than 200 education officials, a group of fourth grade students, and civil rights hero Dr. Benjamin Mays to sign a bill creating a new Department of Education. Rather than being buried as one of three priorities under what had been the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, advocates hoped a new department would elevate the needs of students and teachers as a priority, and better clarify a confusing relationship between local schools, states and the federal government. It would also create a new secretary in the Cabinet who could advocate entirely for each new generation of American students.
Carter’s signature was the fulfillment of a key campaign promise and decades of activism on the part of racial justice groups, the women’s rights movement, and advocates for disabled Americans and non-English speakers, who fought to invest far greater resources in all students, particularly those who had been underserved. Congress declared the new department would be tasked with “ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual.”
These are lofty, and unfinished, ambitions. The American education system is defined by its decentralization; states, local areas, and schools wield considerable power over how students are educated, from preschool through college. But federal government’s role in education is to still make sure American students have both a champion and a protector, an agency dedicated to the notion that when all students are able to thrive, our communities, our economy and our civic life become stronger.
This unfinished legacy is what makes the tenure of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education so tragic. Rather than offering a positive vision for the most diverse generation of students in American history, the Department of Education under DeVos failed to put forward any vision that is responsive to the needs of today’s students. In fact, this department has gone out of its way to gut protections and guidelines aimed at defending students and helping them succeed.
DeVos is perhaps best known for her zeal in promoting private-school vouchers. And indeed, the Trump administration’s budget proposals have included requests for an unprecedented expansion of taxpayer dollars toward so-called school choice programs – paid for with cuts to after-school and teacher-training programs, among other things. While Congress has not yet given the green light on the administration’s plans, it is troubling that this administration would push so fanatically on it, given that there is embarrassingly little evidence that it is effective in helping students learn and achieve. In fact, large-scale studies in multiple states have found that students in school voucher programs perform worse than their peers in public schools.
Perhaps more critically, at a time when reports of violence and harassment directed at black, Latino, and immigrant students have spiked, when three-in-four transgender students report feeling unsafe in school, the department has narrowed the focus away from systemic issues. The department under DeVos has dismissed civil rights complaints at a breakneck pace, and ripped up guidance that simply urged public schools to allow students to use restrooms that conform to their gender identity. In a much-derided “60 Minutes” interview, DeVos refused to answer whether race plays a role in the fact that black students face far harsher discipline for the same behaviors as white students, something researchers and education observers have proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
In an era during which many elite public colleges are enrolling fewer black students than they were several decades ago, the department has rescinded guidance from the Obama administration suggesting colleges should consider race as a factor in diversifying their campuses, placing a chilling effect on campuses that want to become more representative of their state and local populations.
Amid a crucial national conversation around the stories and rights of sexual assault victims, DeVos has withdrawn and begun to rewrite Title IX guidelines from 2011 and 2014 outlining how campuses should protect students from sexual violence and harassment. Under new rules, victims face a higher bar in reporting complaints and seeking justice, and more schools could be let off the hook for not reporting or documenting accusations. Survivors could once again be forced by their schools to face or be cross-examined by their attackers, a counterproductive and traumatizing experience.
And a decade after the Great Recession, with student debt reaching crisis levels for many, DeVos has attempted to slow-walk and gut regulations that protected students, many of whom are students of color and veterans, from predatory education programs that leave them with high loan balances and little else. One of these regulations, known as “gainful employment,” would shut off the ability of poor-performing career education programs – those where graduates take on high debt but earn very little – to access taxpayer dollars. Amid heavy lobbying from the for-profit college industry, the department refused to implement the rule while allowing future poor-performing programs to still access federal dollars, so long as they disclosed debt and earnings data for former students publicly.
When states have attempted to seek action against student loan companies that may have misled borrowers or overcharged them, DeVos actively stymied their efforts and declared that only the federal government had authority to take action. Allowing taxpayer dollars to flow freely to fraudulent colleges and denying states the opportunity to protect their own consumers hardly falls under the traditional definition of conservative governance. Nor does keeping students from seeking relief for debts they should never have had.
The “borrower defense to repayment” rule gave students who attended colleges that had misled or defrauded them, and loaded them up with illegitimate debt, a pathway to have their debts canceled. But under DeVos, many borrowers who attended colleges like Corinthian and ITT, outfits that collapsed under the weight of state and federal lawsuits and poor financial management, await any relief from their debt, while others who expected to have loan balances wiped away have been told only to expect partial relief.
Fortunately, students and families have been spared the worst for now, thanks to tireless efforts of student advocates and a district court ruling that deemed DeVos’ delay of debt relief efforts unlawful. Ironically, DeVos’ attempt to shrink the size of the Department of Education – staffing is down 13% since the beginning of the Trump administration – may be preventing it from advancing its agenda.
But this is cold comfort. This unresponsiveness to today’s students – who are much more likely to be students of color, English language learners, women and openly LGBTQ – prevents us from reaching our full potential by making it more likely some students will drop out of school, fall victim to fraudulent institutions or cruel institutional practices, or simply be overwhelmed with debt. These are the types of things that may not make headlines now but could reverberate long after this administration is out of power. It’s a far cry from the mission for the department laid out nearly four decades ago.