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Civil Rights Advocates React Warily to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Pick for Ed. Sec.

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 29, 2016 5 min read
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Betsy DeVos, the major Republican Party donor who’s been nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to be his education secretary, is best known as an advocate for school choice of various kinds, including vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. But her views on civil rights issues for students and protections for disadvantaged learners and other student groups aren’t as clear.

In a speech given at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group she chairs, DeVos cast vouchers, charters, and scholarships as upholding students’ rights in the context of educational opportunity, saying, “School choice is the pathway for millions of children to get the education they deserve.” In the same speech, she also said choice advocates “fight for kids who don’t fit in.” You can watch her speech at the top of this blog post.

But how have traditional civil rights advocacy groups involved in education and others responded to Trump’s nomination of DeVos? Several of them expressed concern about how school choice by itself does not address inequities and discrimination faced by minority and other communities. In fact, a few worried that school choice programs often undercut protections for students. We’ve rounded up some of their reactions below. Let us know in the comments if you think we’re missing reactions from any notable groups or individuals.

Education Trust: DeVos has a chance as education secretary to continue the “upward trajectory” of providing more and better opportunities to all students, the advocacy group says. But the Education Trust warns they’ll fight against any proposal to “divert resources from the students who need them the most” and away from those students enrolled in public schools.

"[T]here is a very real risk of undoing this hard-won progress if resources are diverted from the young people who most need them, or if the federal government fails to uphold its responsibility to protecting the needs and interests of all students—especially the most vulnerable,” the group said in a statement.

GLSEN: Speaking somewhat more bluntly than the Education Trust, the LGBT student group said it is “deeply concerned” that DeVos’ support for vouchers and tax-credit scholarships flies in the face of civil rights protections for students.

“We have seen time and time again that so-called ‘school choice’ undercuts civil-rights enforcement and drains public education systems of desperately needed funds,” GLSEN said in a statement. “True educational equity requires schools that serve the most at-risk students, including students of color; students with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) students; and English-language learners. Vouchers and tuition tax credits do not advance this cause.”

Derrell Bradford: The executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now struck a much different note.

Writing at The 74, Bradford said that while the first belief of voucher supporters is that vouchers create the right environment for creating and regulating successful schools, “The second guiding belief is that there is something fundamental in the right to choose and in the ability of the right school to actualize human potential, in particular for low-income kids of color ... Which is to say, there is a moral imperative about the future of children who traditionally don’t have access to great schools that animates the support of the policy.”

NAACP-Legal Defense and Educational Fund: The organization highlights DeVos’ support for the effort to allow vouchers in Michigan, but also her support for overturning affirmative action in higher education in the state.

“The Department of Education’s mission ‘is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access,’” the Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement. “Policies that improve all students’ access to quality educational opportunities have enjoyed bipartisan support in previous administrations. But too many of America’s students are still educated in racially-isolated, and woefully underfunded schools and school districts.”

Advancement Project: One of the strongest condemnations came from the Advancement Project Executive Director Judith Browne Dianis, who said appointing DeVos as education secretary would amount to appointing “a fox to guard the henhouse.” Vouchers have left a destructive trail in the communities they are ostensibly meant to serve, Dianis said, with effects including school closures, while also failing to adequately serve minority students.

“While Donald Trump remained consistently nebulous on his education plans during his campaign, we can only deduce from his desire to appoint a champion of school privatization that he systemically intends to divest from schools accountable to the public, and invest in strategies that ultimately close schools and put education under the control of a few corporate leaders,” Dianis said in her statement.

Communities for Just Schools: Allison Brown, the group’s executive director, said in an email there are successful schools of all kinds, and that, “The role of education leaders, including and especially the U.S. Secretary of Education, is to identify those curricular practices, school climate components, teaching methods, and more that work to make those schools excellent regardless of their structure.” These include addressing implicit bias and an over-reliance on exclusionary disciplinary policies, she said.

Brown said DeVos had the opportunity to unite separate education reform and educational equity communities, which Brown said are “not at war.” However, she also issued a warning of sorts to DeVos, saying there’s often a disconnect between wealthy backers of choice and the families these choice programs are intended to serve: “To blindly promote one structure of education over another, particularly when that promotion ensures the transfer of public dollars to enrich individuals and organizations rather than to guarantee success for young people and their families, is irresponsible.”

Staff Writer Evie Blad contributed to this post.

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