From the Daily: The U must step up under DeVos

Monday, February 13, 2017 - 5:12pm

Following fierce protests and fiery criticism, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education on Feb. 7 in a historic tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. DeVos, former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party and a billionaire businesswomen, has never attended public school, been an educator or directed any department of education. She is a strong supporter of school choice and student voucher programs, which threaten many important facets of our nation’s education, including the education of marginalized groups such as racial minorities, students of low socioeconomic status, students with disabilities and survivors of sexual assault. Given DeVos’s appointment as secretary of education, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board calls upon the University of Michigan to continue to support the best interests of students, even as efforts to protect students may wane at the federal level.

DeVos’s support of school choice has implications on the racial and socioeconomic compositions of primary and secondary schools and the quality of their education. Charter schools in Michigan, especially in Detroit, have historically performed poorly. While studies have shown charter schools — under close monitoring — can increase racial integration in segregated communities, DeVos’s lack of commitment to the oversight of charter schools will not likely secure optimistic outcomes. What’s more, it is troubling that DeVos is not taking a more critical stance on charter schools, given their lack of success in her home state of Michigan. This will ultimately have deleterious effects on student preparedness and access to higher education, and, by extension, to diversity on campus.

DeVos’s apparent lack of knowledge and commitment to protecting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is extremely concerning, especially because students with disabilities can be harmed by the voucher programs she supports. For example, Florida’s voucher program requires that students with disabilities who receive vouchers waive their rights normally afforded under IDEA. And while this issue could hypothetically be solved by strict regulation, DeVos’s adamant opposition to any uniform regulation on public school activities during her confirmation hearings makes it all but certain that necessary regulations to protect special education students will be absent from DeVos’s administration. Since K-12 education is integral to college access, the University should remain proactive in creating pathways to access post-secondary education for students potentially marginalized by DeVos’s lack of oversight.

She seems to know very little about financial aid and student debt, as demonstrated in her uncertainty regarding how financial aid and Federal Pell Grants work. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) questioned DeVos about how she plans on protecting students' finances, DeVos’s response confirmed she was unaware of the laws in place to prevent monetary waste, fraud and abuse. Such ambivalence is especially concerning in light of the $25 million settlement President Donald Trump dealt out to students who were cheated when they enrolled in Trump University. The University should remain proactive in ensuring students’ resources are being expended properly while working toward tuition affordability.

Finally, DeVos has not shown a commitment to upholding her department’s 2011 Title IX guidance, which requires colleges and universities to play a role in fighting sexual assault on campus. DeVos has donated to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that supported a bill that would ban institutions from prosecuting and investigating reports of sexual misconduct without a survivor making a police report. While many universities’ handlings of sexual misconduct cases have been problematic, we believe that universities’ involvement in sexual misconduct cases independent of law enforcement officials must be maintained given a university’s unique role in a student’s life. Eliminating a student’s option of only reporting misconduct to a university restricts survivors’ choice of how they would like to handle the matter. We implore the University to continue providing all current methods of recourse to sexual assault survivors that are legally permissible, even if the federal government quashes current protective federal policies. It is no less the responsibility of the University to help survivors of sexual assault and mitigate gender discrimination on campus.

The University must continue its commitment to protecting victims of sexual assault, students with disabilities and marginalized groups. Betsy DeVos’s confirmation will have tangible consequences for all students, and it is necessary that the University’s students, faculty and staff fight back against policies that fail to provide a safe and quality education experience for everyone.