Commentary

Arne Duncan: Betsy DeVos Turns a Blind Eye to Injustice

In this 2015 photo, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks during a town hall meeting at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa.
In this 2015 photo, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks during a town hall meeting at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa.
—Charlie Neibergall/AP

The former ed. secretary discusses guns in schools, students with disabilities, and more

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I am deeply troubled by the waves of distressing and insensitive policies emanating from the office I once occupied. Some recent ones even have Republicans shaking their heads.

While the U.S. Department of Education has sent mixed signals, it appears the department would tacitly approve the use of federal education funds by districts to buy guns. That’s a long way from the 1965 law that brought the federal government into the world of education.

The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was part of a package of civil rights laws aimed at advancing equity and justice in the classroom. It followed a decade after the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision to end legal segregation. It was America at its best, raising our sights and uniting us behind common goals.

Secretary Betsy DeVos’ position on the use of guns is part of a pattern that takes us backwards. In recent days, she has announced plans to roll back guidance we issued on campus sexual assaults. More than 1 in 5 young women and more than 5 percent of men, report being assaulted; yet, she acts more concerned with the rights of the accused than the rights of victims.

The Trump administration also weakened protections for student borrowers and reversed the rules we developed for holding for-profit schools accountable. Our young people are drowning in debt, delaying home purchases, and filing for bankruptcy, but DeVos seems more concerned with protecting for-profit colleges that are ripping them off.

The administration has abandoned efforts to protect the rights of transgender students at the very moment that 16 states are challenging the validity of transgender people. They don’t want them covered by civil rights laws, to which I ask, why not? Have they renounced their citizenship? Are they second-class people?

Despite the pleas of teachers, students, and parents, DeVos may pull back guidance encouraging the use of restorative justice practices to reduce suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. The evidence of bias is overwhelming, yet she turns a blind eye to the injustice.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting that left 17 dead and 17 injured, she has created a commission to look at school safety but the topic of gun control is largely off the table, except to suggest that we need more armed people in schools. The Parkland shooter bought an assault weapon with no questions asked, yet her solution is more guns.

On issue after issue, DeVos’ answer is the same: Leave it to the states and districts to figure out. This flies in the face of more than half a century of federal interventions to protect students.

"The pendulum has now swung in favor of those who hold power, instead of safeguarding the rights of the people."

Thanks to those efforts, low-income kids receive additional funding to make up for the fact that their schools receive less state and local funding than schools serving higher-income kids. This isn’t about federal overreach. It’s about fairness—a core American value.

Thanks to those efforts, students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate education including needed accommodations in order to participate in school. But for these laws, students with disabilities would be hidden and neglected.

Thanks to those efforts, legal segregation has come to an end, even if de facto segregation continues. If integration really is our goal, we not only have to change the hearts and minds of people, but we need to put the power of the law behind the effort. So far, we haven’t.

These policies did not just fall out of the air, and they should not be reversed on a whim. They were developed with extensive input from a broad range of stakeholders, including those most-directly affected.

DeVos and her ideological partners are intent on undoing our work, regardless of the consequences. Teachers and students have told her that zero-tolerance discipline feeds the school-to-prison pipeline and should be discouraged. Has she heard them?

Before abandoning protections for LGBTQ students, she should talk with the parents of 9-year-old Jemel Myles of Denver. Jemel killed himself last month after he was bullied for being gay.

I appreciate the argument that Washington can’t solve all of these problems. I never pretended it could. The federal role is limited at best.

But the pendulum has now swung in favor of those who hold power, instead of safeguarding the rights of the people. These new policies might seem technical and abstract, but Americans need to know they are a betrayal of our core values, and will have lasting consequences.

So what are the people to do? It’s unacceptable to stay silent and do nothing while children are bullied to the point of suicide, while students are massacred by easily available weapons of war, while students are sexually assaulted, and while college debt threatens an entire generation.

Silence in the face of injustice is un-American. There are lives at stake. There are children at risk. We all have an obligation to speak up and do what we can.

Vol. 38, Issue 04, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: September 12, 2018, as Arne Duncan: 'Silence in the Face of Justice Is Un-American'
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