Betsy DeVos: Secretary of Discrimination?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, February 2017.

The opportunity to learn is a fundamental American value, which no student should ever be denied because of discrimination or harassment. But just months into her tenure, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is sending mixed messages about her commitment to protect young people from discrimination in schools. During a congressional hearing in May, she refused to cite a single example of a time when she thought it was appropriate for the federal government to intervene in cases of discrimination by private schools receiving federal voucher funds. Secretary DeVos has said that she opposes discrimination in any form—but under her leadership, the U.S. Department of Education is rolling back its enforcement of civil rights laws and undermining critical protections for vulnerable students.

Here are six ways in which Education Secretary DeVos is enabling discrimination and undermining students’ civil rights.

DeVos rescinded Title IX guidance clarifying schools’ legal obligations to prevent discrimination against transgender students

In one of her first acts as education secretary, DeVos rescinded guidance that clarified transgender students’ rights under federal civil rights law and schools’ obligations to prevent discrimination that could impede transgender students’ equal access to educational opportunities.

The guidance, which was written in response to requests from educators and school administrators, followed court decisions indicating that transgender students are protected by Title IX—a decades-old civil rights law prohibiting gender discrimination in education. The document gave schools the tools they needed to comply with the law and ensure equal educational access for all. Transgender students face pervasive harassment and discrimination in schools: Approximately 1 in 6 openly transgender K-12 students has been forced to leave school because of the severity of their mistreatment.

In May, the Education Department doubled down by circulating new guidance to its regional directors regarding investigations into anti-transgender discrimination in schools. The May 2017 guidance, which was never publicized but later leaked to the press, provided staff with a list of kinds of anti-transgender discrimination to investigate. Notably, it omitted cases in which transgender students were barred from using single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identity. The document implied that the department’s staff could drop investigations into cases in which transgender students were denied access to bathrooms. This new guidance creates unacceptable ambiguity regarding whether the Department of Education will intervene to prevent discrimination against transgender students—all while federal courts are recognizing that denying a student access to facilities consistent with their gender identity is illegal discrimination.

Secretary DeVos cannot change the law on her own, and the law still protects transgender students from discrimination. However, by targeting transgender students for unequal treatment she is sending the message that her Education Department will turn a blind eye when transgender students are discriminated against and bullied out of school.

Under DeVos, the Education Department has associated with anti-LGBTQ groups

On Father’s Day, the Department of Education hosted an event called “Engaging Fathers and Families,” which featured the virulently anti-LGBTQ Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council (FRC). The FRC has been officially classified by the SPLC as a hate group.

The FRC has opposed allowing LGBTQ people to adopt children and has promoted dangerous myths about LGBTQ people, including the insidious and demonstrably false claim that gay men are more likely to engage in sexual abuse of children. According to the SPLC, in 2014, Tony Perkins, the FRC’s president, equated progress on LGBTQ rights to the Holocaust and publicly endorsed the statement that, because of LGBTQ rights advocates, Christians would be “loaded in cattle cars like it was when the Nazis took over.” Similarly, Focus on the Family promotes the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy and has referred to children of same-sex couples as “human guinea pigs.” Attendance from both organizations raised much concern; groups such as the National Parent Teacher Association—which has 4 million members—withdrew from the event because of their participation.

DeVos’ department is quietly rolling back civil rights enforcement protocols

The Education Department has announced plans to retreat from best practices for enforcing civil rights laws and investigating potential violations. In the past, when an individual student filed a complaint of discrimination with the department, the complaint often triggered a broader investigation to determine whether the issue was part of a pattern of discrimination, especially in cases involving complex issues such as sexual violence, racial discrimination, or school discipline.

But according to a recent memo issued by Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the department will scale back those systemic investigations, and regional offices will no longer be required to alert department officials of all complaints on highly sensitive issues. Systemic investigations reveal patterns of discrimination over time, while a single complaint cannot provide such information. By scaling back systemic enforcement, DeVos and Jackson are depriving their own department of the tools it needs to recognize, address, and prevent discriminatory patterns and policies. In response, 34 senators have rebuked the department’s diminishing enforcement of federal laws prohibiting discrimination in education—calling their actions a “war on civil rights.”

DeVos’ acting head of the OCR has criticized civil rights laws

Jackson, whom DeVos appointed in April, has criticized many of the civil rights protections she is now responsible for enforcing. Jackson opposes affirmative action, claimed she was discriminated against for being white as a Stanford student, and has written favorably of an economist—Murray N. Rothbard—who publicly denounced the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Jackson also criticized laws prohibiting sexual harassment in her 2005 book and publicly dismissed women accusing President Donald Trump of sexual violence as “fake victims.”

Jackson’s hostility to sexual harassment laws is particularly disturbing because the OCR—the very agency she is leading—is charged with enforcing federal laws that require schools to prevent and address sexual harassment and violence on campus. Since being appointed, Jackson has already sent some disturbing signals: In a closed-door June meeting with lawyers who represent colleges and universities, Jackson suggested that she plans to stop publishing a list of schools the Education Department is investigating for violating Title IX. Students deserve a department committed to transparency around civil rights enforcement, not one that hides which colleges have a problem with sexual violence on campus.

DeVos to oversee budget and staffing cuts to the OCR

The OCR is charged with enforcing civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, disability, and religion in all schools that receive federal funding. The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget, released in May, results in a $1.7 million decrease in funding for the OCR—a budget DeVos has called a “historic investment in America’s students.” This would mean that the OCR would lose about 40 staff members, at a time when complaints to the OCR are rising dramatically. Indeed, the OCR saw a 75 percent increase in pending complaints between 2009 and 2015. What’s more, a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) survey of 10,000 K-12 educators found that students’ verbal harassment and use of racial slurs and derogatory language are on the rise.

And because the OCR is already understaffed, many students who file discrimination complaints with the Education Department wait years for their cases to be resolved. The administration’s proposed cuts would exacerbate this backlog, delaying justice for even more students than before.

DeVos refused to clarify whether her voucher program will direct funds to schools that discriminate against students

In a recent House Committee on Appropriations hearing where she defended the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget, DeVos refused to say whether K-12 private schools receiving federal dollars through her voucher scheme would be permitted to discriminate against students. The scheme would funnel public funds out of public schools and into private schools by allowing parents to use a voucher to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition.

DeVos also would not commit to barring private schools that expel or refuse to admit LGBTQ students from the voucher program.

Conclusion

Education Secretary DeVos and the Education Department have a responsibility to uphold federal law and ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn free from discrimination and harassment. Although DeVos has said that she opposes educational discrimination, her actions speak louder than words: As secretary of education, she has undermined the department’s work to foster equitable, welcoming, and safe learning environments. Students, parents, and schools deserve better.

Coleton Whitaker is the campaigns coordinator at the Center for American Progress. Sejal Singh is the campaigns and communications manager for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center. Stephenie Johnson is the associate campaign director for the K-12 Education team at the Center.