In just a matter of weeks, one of the most controversial presidential appointees will be out of a job. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor who had zero experience in public education before assuming her role, obtained her position after a historic tiebreaking vote in the Senate by Vice President Mike Pence. Since then, DeVos has implemented policies that have been sharply criticized by students, parents, and educators, at one point making her the least popular member of Trump’s cabinet. Now, the new Biden administration is tasked with finding a replacement who will work tirelessly to mitigate some of the damage caused by DeVos, reverse rules that have been put in place under her leadership, and implement policies to repair some of the pervasive problems that existed long before she was appointed.
Discussions are mounting about who should take the top job, and Biden is expected to announce his cabinet choices in a matter of days. Educators who have been speaking out against DeVos’ policies for the last four years are relieved about the change in leadership and have several suggestions for what qualities Biden should look for in an education secretary; they also have some ideas about what issues should be prioritized from the get-go.
The coronavirus has made already-existing inequities in the public education system worse, and the new education secretary will need to move swiftly to address them. Biden has already presented a vastly different education agena from the current administration—especially when it comes to school reopenings—and has pledged to select an appointee who will move quickly to reverse Devos’ policies.
“This pandemic at minimum has been revealing and at worst catastrophic for education writ large, exacerbating racial and economic disparities,” said Frank Gettridge, executive director for the National Public Education Support Fund. “Consequently, the selection of the next education secretary will be critical for President-elect Biden and to the recovery and healing of this country.”
With school closings and a transition to online learning, the coronavirus pandemic has directly affected the lives of millions of students across the country, with some believing it has the potential to set back an entire generation of kids. DeVos has been heavily criticized for threatening to withdraw funding from schools that refused to open mid-pandemic, and hasn’t offered educators much guidance for navigating the uncharted territory of full-time remote learning. She also hasn’t introduced a widespread plan to adequately address the disparities in internet access for students living in already-underserved areas.
“Families have been scrambling to create a sense of normalcy for their children and to maintain a sense of routine,” said Tanya St. Julien, chief of staff for Leadership for Educational Equity and a member of Community Education Council 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant—a Brooklyn neighborhood with one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections. “Access to consistent service that has the bandwidth to allow students to be a part of instruction, download, and work online is really difficult. Students are getting kicked off of Zoom and the internet doesn’t have as much bandwidth in some of their buildings.”
St. Julien is hoping the next education secretary will utilize private and public partnerships with providers to help students access reliable internet service—similar to what Angelica Infante, Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, did in Rhode Island at the onset of the pandemic. With the number of young students witnessing the loss of life and economic and emotional turmoil as a result of the pandemic, St. Julien said she also thinks mental health should also be a priority for the next education secretary.
“Our kids are traumatized,” she said. “It’s the age-old problem of poverty and lack of healthy activities and opportunities that we’re seeing spikes in crime … There should be one guidance counselor or mental health professional for every 200 students a school has.”
Civil rights in education
In her first year as education secretary, DeVos focused on reversing several Obama-era policies and eventually dismissed more civil rights complaints than any other administration in history in that time frame. Some of DeVos’ most controversial moves included rolling back protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses, fiercely advocating for “school choice,” revoking an Obama-era rule that policed for-profit colleges, exacerbating financial woes for student loan borrowers, and reducing protections for LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and disabled students.
In addition to her incendiary civil rights policies in schools, DeVos also made several memorable gaffes and inflammatory comments during her tenure as secretary of education, including calling historically Black colleges “pioneers” of school choice (Black students were actually barred from attending white institutions), implying teachers should carry guns to protect students from grizzly bears, and suggesting human-made climate change is not real.
“The next secretary of education should have the courage needed to create and promote more equitable and racially just policies,” Gettridge said. “This will require that the secretary possess the professional resume, lived experience, and historical perspective needed to understand the real-life implications of these education policies.”
One of DeVos’ most harmful policy reversals was the Obama-era program that aimed to address racial discrimination in school discipline. The program created a set of guidelines and interventions to address the behavior and emotional needs of students with the goal of eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline.
St. Julien said DeVos’ move “created a very clear path to prison” for students of color, who are already more likely to be suspended, expelled, or targeted by on-campus police. Reversing that policy effectively eliminated discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline problem at the national level. Many critics hope the incoming secretary of education will reinstate and expand on some Obama-era policies.
DeVos’ elitism has come under fire since she was appointed, and she has made little effort to hide her preference for more intellectual and economically well-off students. In an interview with 60 Minutes in 2018, DeVos admitted she never “intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” and stated that taxpayer money “should be funding and investing in students, not in school, school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.”
“[DeVos] has no idea what equity means in public education,” said Angela Cobián, treasurer of Denver Public Schools. Denver Public Schools recently won a lawsuit with the NAACP that accused DeVos of illegally changing the rules to divert coronavirus relief funds to private schools. Cobián said Denver Public Schools had already been suffering due to state budget cuts, but were left “fighting for the crumbs” after the Department of Education expected them to share their budget with private schools.
“As a woman of color and a leader of color, to have a white woman in that position not understanding inequitable finances and the inequitable experiences of students of color and low-income students who are rural in the state of Colorado—it just enrages me in a way that I think only people of color really feel.”
Denver has a majority-Latinx student population, but Cobián, who is also Latinx, noted that being in the majority doesn’t always mean students have the access to advancement opportunities.
“I hope the next Secretary of Education thinks about the role that the federal government can play in the advancement and the mobility of people of color in the United States who turned out en masse to elect President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and then make sure that the policies and financing that we have in place are supportive of those students to advance into careers and jobs that they decide.”
Student loan debt is one of the many issues Cobián hopes the new secretary of education will address. Democrats have already floated the possibility of full or partial student loan forgiveness once Biden takes office, a move that would especially help students of color, who are burdened with student loans at a disproportionate rate. Supporters of student loan forgiveness argue that it is paramount to the economic recovery of society.
Biden has pledged to reverse many Trump administration policies, specifically when it comes to immigration. However, Cobián says a clear alignment between the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security could prevent conflicting policies from being implemented.
“We have to start taking a two-generation approach to both education and immigration policies,” Cobián said. “If you’re going to continue to detain and deport, you’re still ruining opportunities for children. Everybody loves to talk about the Dreamers, but nobody talks about the parents.”
Older immigrants enrolled in school in the U.S. have been especially vulnerable under the Trump administration. International student enrollment has been driven down year over year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the number even lower. The Trump administration also unsuccessfully attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and ultimately ended up scaling it back. Of the 450,000 students enrolled in higher education in the U.S., just under half have DACA status or are eligible for it, according to a study this year by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Immigrant rights groups hope that whoever takes over the Department of Education will work to ensure that immigrants, DACA recipients, and international students are protected.
“I would like to see an immediate restoration of DACA and [the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program], but also a pathway to citizenship for the parents who people are colloquially now calling the ‘original dreamers’ so that there’s a real fighting chance for people to stay together and to advance together,” Cobián said.
The influence of the appointee
Historically, policies by the U.S. Department of Education have helped advance civil rights for millions of students. From the desegregation of schools with Brown v. Board of Education to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that outlawed discrimination of students based on disability, the next education secretary has the influence and the power to both propel and set back entire generations of students. Choosing the wrong appointee could lead to the continued erosion of civil rights protections for millions of students across the country—something the education system can’t handle after the last four years.