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Stan Karp: Betsy DeVos Uses the Pandemic to Pursue Her War Against Public Schools

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Stan Karp has written a brilliant critique of federal policy and Betsy DeVos’s audacious and vicious assault on our nation’s public schools and their students. Don’t believe those who say that Congress has blocked her most horrendous actions. She has used her authority and exceeded the intent of Congress to advance her single-minded and narrow-minded pursuit of privatization. When Congress tries to blunt or control her actions, she simply ignores Congress. She is out of control. She treats members of Congress like her household help.

Karp reviews the failures of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Then he shows how the pandemic has given DeVos the tools to wreak havoc on our public schools, which enroll the vast majority of children.

He writes:

The emergency CARES Act, passed without a single dissenting vote and signed in March, was the first of several massive pieces of federal legislation rushed through Congress in response to the pandemic. While the CARES Act didn’t include the same kind of signature federal initiative that RTTT represented for Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, it did give Duncan’s successor, the wildly unpopular, right-wing billionaire Betsy DeVos, extraordinary powers in a host of important policy areas.

There will be additional federal action affecting schools in the months ahead, including attempts to address the financial tsunami that is already engulfing school budgets. But even a cursory comparison between the federal response in 2009 and the initial response to the current crisis provides some clues about the extended emergency ahead for public education.

The CARES Act included $13.5 billion for K–12 schools, $14 billion for higher education, and another $3 billion that governors can split between the two as part of $31 billion in “stabilization aid” for state budgets. But while the total $2.2 trillion legislative package was several times larger than the $800 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, the initial amounts provided for education in the CARES Act were much smaller.

The Recovery Act sent $54 billion in education aid to states primarily for K–12 programs and the implementation of RTTT. Moreover, as noted by Education Week, the “2009 stimulus didn’t just shore up education budgets; its unprecedented windfall of education aid also helped the Obama administration put financial muscle behind its priorities. Those priorities focused on areas like standards and accountability.” To promote those policies, the funds came with prescriptive regulations about their use, including provisions that drove an expansion of charters, standardized testing, and test-based teacher evaluation. States and school districts desperate for federal dollars had to commit to this agenda to receive RTTT’s “competitive grants.”

“The CARES Act doesn’t take the same approach,” Education Week’s analysis concluded. “It’s hard to see discrete elements of a Trump education policy agenda driving current coronavirus aid — although U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated last week she wants to change that.”

DeVos Given Tools of Destruction

The CARES Act gives DeVos multiple tools to do so. It gives the secretary of education authority to waive many requirements outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the omnibus federal education legislation that replaced NCLB. The first — and undoubtedly most popular — use of this authority came when all 50 states sought and received in a matter of weeks a waiver to suspend federally required annual standardized testing for the current school year. The educational irrelevance of these tests and their existence as an obstacle to serving the real needs of students was one of the first lessons of the pandemic.

But DeVos’ new authority has much more sinister potential. The CARES Act gives her the power to waive Title I funding regulations, which govern the largest federal education program supporting children from low-income families. It also allows her to suspend Title II rules defining professional development and Title IV requirements to “provide students with a well-rounded education” including the arts, mental health services, and training on trauma-informed practices — all crucially important in the current crisis. The CARES Act specifically allows schools to shift money from these areas to purchase “digital devices.” By early April, 28 states had received waivers to reallocate ESSA spending.

In the guidelines for distributing the first pot of CARES funding, the $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, DeVos blocked any use of funds to support DACA recipients or international students. She also said any monies awarded to teacher unions to provide services defined in the CARES Act would be “inconsistent with statutory requirements,” although last year she authorized church and religious groups to receive federal funds to provide similar services.

DeVos has a long and notorious record of using agency guidance and regulatory action to undermine equity. One of her first acts after being confirmed as secretary was to support the repeal of protections for transgender students, including their right to choose restrooms. She was sued for rolling back protections against predatory lenders at for-profit colleges and threatened with jail by a federal judge for “intentionally flouting” a court order to stop collection proceedings for such loans. DeVos rescinded sexual assault guidance issued under Title IX, a move the National Women’s Law Center said would have a “devastating” impact, and in May released new guidance that weakened protections for victims of sexual harassment and assault. She proposed allowing schools to use federal “student enrichment funds” to purchase guns and used a school safety commission formed in the wake of the Parkland school shootings to recommend repeal of regulations on school discipline practices that were rooted in civil rights concerns. Similarly, DeVos tried to rescind Obama-era rules that required districts to track racial disparities in special education classification rates, an effort a federal judge blocked as “arbitrary and capricious.” In April, DeVos relaxed oversight and accreditation rules for higher education online programs at a time when the pandemic was massively expanding the scale of such programs.

Trump and DeVos on Feb 14, 2017 in Washington D.C. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool
Beyond putting her very rich thumb on the wrong side of the scales of justice, DeVos is now in position to be a key gatekeeper for a new and crushing era of austerity for school budgets. To access the CARES Act’s stabilization funds, states must nominally commit to maintaining recent levels of education funding for fiscal years 2021 and 2022. But DeVos can waive that requirement and no doubt will. Already, she has issued guidelines for distributing CARES Act funds that drive more dollars to private schools and wealthier students by circumventing requirements to allocate the funds according to more progressive Title I formulas.

DeVos undermines equity. She flouts the Will of Congress. She seeks to dismantle civil rights protections.

Unlike Trump, she is not incompetent. She is not stupid. She is very clever. She is diabolical. Trump will never fire her because she sows chaos as surely as he does, but without bluster and braggadocio.

If you need a reason to vote for Joe Biden, think about Betsy DeVos.

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