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Dozens of Democratic Senators Express Concerns About DeVos and Civil Rights

By Alyson Klein — June 27, 2017 2 min read
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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and 33 other Democratic senators have major concerns with the direction of the civil rights enforcement under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. And they’ve sent her a six-page letter letting her know how they feel.

The letter doesn’t mince words: Here’s a snippet:

Your testimony in front of Congress, your continued association with groups with records of supporting discrimination, and two memos written by the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, have reemphasized longstanding concerns about your dedication to the idea that all students, no matter their race, religion, disability, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, have a right to receive an education free from discrimination.

A spokeswoman for DeVos didn’t immediately respond to an email asking for the secretary’s take on the letter.

The Democratic lawmakers point to recent actions taken by DeVos’ department. Those include a new policy surrounding Office of Civil Rights investigations announced by acting assistant secretary for civil rights Candice Jackson. That policy, announced in an internal memo first obtained by ProPublica, calls for a lot less emphasis on examining individual complaints for evidence of systemic discrimination.

The senators are also worried that DeVos isn’t looking out for transgender students’ rights. They point to the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance calling for transgender students to be able to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. And they’re worried that Jackson downplayed the importance of transgender student rights in another internal memo, which pledged to focusing on bullying, as opposed to the bathroom question.

The senators are also unhappy that DeVos invited groups with a historic record of supporting policies such as gay conversion therapy, including the Family Research Council, to a Father’s Day event at the department on June 15.

That invitation came after DeVos distanced herself from donations to the organization made by members of her family at her confirmation hearing. The senators are also upset that the department’s headquarters will no longer have as much authority over investigations at regional centers.

The senators are not pleased that DeVos hired Adam Kissel, who formerly worked at the conservative Koch network to serve as a deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs. Kissel has been skeptical of the standard of proof advocated by the Obama administration for colleges investigating sexual assault and harassment claims.

And, unsurprisingly, the senators don’t like the Trump administration’s proposal to trim the office for civil rights’ budget by 7 percent, or 46 full-time workers. That will lead to ballooning caseloads for the folks who remain, the senators fear.

The senators, of course, aren’t the only ones taking issue with the Trump administration’s handling of civil rights. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is headed up by Catherine Lhamon, who lead OCR in the education department during the Obama administration, recently launched a two year investigation on the Trump administration’s handling of the issue, signaling out DeVos.

The senators have a long list of asks for DeVos and her team to address some of these concerns. They want a list of open cases involving transgender students, and to know the status of each case. And they’re looking for a list of cases OCR has closed this year, and the reason for each closure. They also want copies of any internal memos dealing with civil rights enforcement. (More on the fourth page of the letter.)

The letter was signed by just about every one of the Senate’s 44 Democrats. Notably absent from the list: Senators in states President Donald Trump won, who have a tough re-election battle ahead in 2018. That includes: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana.