Early Signs Betsy DeVos Will Not Support Civil Rights

Jeff Bryant

It was just an Easter holiday party. But it seemed like an occasion that could give the Trump White House an easy opportunity to show racial inclusiveness.

But as the Daily News reports, when the White House staged its first annual Easter Egg Roll, it forgot to invite local school children. News outlets aligned to the Democratic Party, such as Occupy Democrats and Share Blue, were quick to note that while school children in the surrounding neighborhoods are mostly black, the event attendees were predominantly white – including “an all-white band on hand to perform slavery-era spirituals and soul music.”

The Daily News reporter attributes the whitewashing of the Easter crowd at the White House to a problem with “basic logistics,” but anyone paying attention knows all too well there’s a white people problem endemic to the Trump administration.

That problem is acutely visible in a policy arena where racial inclusion may matter most – education.

So far, Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has sent numerous signs she is assembling a staff and laying down a policy mindset that seems indifferent – if not outright averse – to the needs of nonwhite students.

A Growing Racial Divide

DeVos has taken the helm of federal education policy at a time when black and brown school children and youth critically need leaders in the federal government to address their needs.

The number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 schools passed the number of non-Hispanic whites over two years ago. Nevertheless, schools have become more racially segregated than they were 40 years ago.

The weight of research evidence shows when schools are racially and socioeconomically integrated, all students – even the white kids – benefit academically and in their social and emotional capabilities. Yet, without strong federal leadership, states and local districts generally shirk their responsibilities to enforce school integration.

Racial segregation is not the only problem nonwhite students confront in schools. Students of color in our nation’s schools are disproportionally more apt to receive out-of-school suspensions than their white peers, which significantly raises their tendency to eventually get entangled in the criminal justice system. A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy found that in New York City alone these punitive school discipline programs cost the city more than $746 million annually.

How may we expect a DeVos administration to step up to address these challenges?

Alarming Hires For The Department Of Education

As I reported shortly after her nomination, DeVos has a problematic track record on civil rights, based on her actions in Michigan to promote school choice programs that significantly worsened the state’s racial and socioeconomic segregation of schools.

In one of her earliest moves as Secretary, DeVos announced her department’s decision to end a federal grant program created during the Obama administration to encourage more diversity in schools. Experts on poverty and race had called her handling of that program “a real test of her commitment to school integration.” She flunked it.

More alarming is recent news of how many new hires for the education department have a history of making racially offensive comments and expressing controversial opinions on efforts to level the social and economic playing field for African-Americans and other racial minorities.

Many of the new hires for the education department, Politico reports, have made racially offensive social media comments on Twitter and Facebook. And DeVos has staffed-up with people who have no apparent expertise in education or civil rights and who appear to be mostly white.

The most alarming hire, so far, is for the head of the very office tasked to oversee civil rights enforcement in schools.

As ProPublica reports, DeVos’s new acting head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, “once complained that she experienced discrimination because she is white,” has spoken out against feminism and race-based preferences, and has favored writings by “an economist who decried both compulsory education and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

A professed libertarian, Jackson has collaborated on numerous politically conservative projects, including a book on the allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Clinton and had a stint at rightwing legal advocacy organization Judicial Watch.

In addition to their problematic stances on civil rights, many of DeVos’s the new appointments to the department of education also raise concerns about cronyism and conflicts of interest. Many of her new staffers are holdovers of previous Republican administrations, have significant ties to the charter school industry, were employed by the Trump political machine, or have financial interests in for-profit colleges.

Wrong Policies On Race

Moving from matters of personnel to issues of policy, DeVos continues to make public pronouncements that seem antithetical to the interests of civil rights.

Her proclaimed support for “school choice”  – most recently, comparing schools to ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft – ignores how unregulated school choice options often lead to increased segregation in schools.

She regards social justice issues in schools as problems of “character” rather than structural discrimination and racism, according to Think Progress, the action center for left-leaning Center for American Progress. This raises fears among among civil rights advocates that DeVos will focus on supposed flaws of black and brown students rather than address the biased discipline policies that target and jeopardize these marginalized students.

Also, there’s a fear that DeVos and her administration will steer more federal dollars to private schools and charters that create their own policies without outside oversight. These schools have a well-researched track record for suspending black and disabled students at a higher rate than public schools.

These are all signs of an administration that will likely develop policies and support programs that attend to the needs of only some students and, like her boss’s Easter party, will keep marginalized students on the outside looking in.

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