The Dangers of Betsy

Dear Donald –

You finally got Betsy confirmed and, on her first day on the job, she had protesters outside the building. Today, she’s visiting a middle school and, wouldn’t you know it, more protesters are planning to show up. 

I have to say, her introductory speech at the Department of Education on Wednesday was not bad. She said all the right things. She even made a joke.  But people are still worried. Never before have we had a Secretary of Education with as much disdain for public schools as Betsy. Never before have we had a Secretary of Education with so little experience in education. People are worried about what her confirmation means for schools and public education in this country, and rightly so. That’s why I figured it made sense to lay out what I see as the real flash points in edu action policy over the next four years, and where Betsy can really do damage. 

People are concerned that Betsy will push for private school vouchers using federal tax dollars, pulling money away from the neediest schools and students to benefit affluent students. To be fair, this is one of Betsy’s pet issues, and she can be a strong advocate and mouthpiece for those misguided policies. However, she can’t do it on her own. Without Congress signing onto the idea, Betsy can’t unilaterally decide to turn all federal special education dollars into vouchers.  If this is what folks care about, they need to keep an eye on the Hill. For example, look to Tim Scott’s proposed CHOICE Act, which would allow states, at their own discretion and with no checks on quality or access, turn IDEA funding into vouchers. It’s a bad idea, and a badly written bill. Right now, federal money only covers about $1,500 of the cost of educating kids with disabilities, but this bill would allow the full cost of tuition, fees, and transportation to a private school to be funneled out. That means a single student using one of these vouchers could take all of the money intended for 20-30 other students, leaving them with nothing. Keep an eye on Congress, they’re the ones with the power to really muck around in private school vouchers. 

Where folks should really be concerned about Betsy and her impact is inhe areas of civil rights, individuals with disabilities, and higher education. 

The Department of Education performs an important civil rights function, ensuring that all students are protected in educational settings. In some instances, this may mean pursuing cases against districts that have discriminatory discipline policies that disproportionately suspend and expel black students, undermining their right to a public education and increasing their interactions with the criminal justice system. They may pursue cases against colleges or universities who do not provide adequate protections for survivors of sexual assault. They make sure that States and school districts don’t disproportionately put unqualified and under qualified teachers in front of poor or black and brown students. Even when they don’t actually pursue cases, they operate the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which collects data on the practices of all 17,000 school districts nationwide and provides the only real data of the sort, allowing advocate to examine the practices and effects of their districts’ policies. 

Under Betsy, this could all go away. She could order the Office for Civil Rights to stop their investigations or severely limit them to only certain types of offenses. She could shift funding for the CRDC, removing that important data source for advocates everywhere. She could bring enforcement to a standstill with just a word. 

Similarly, the Department plays an important role in protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. They ensure that infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education. The Department provides oversight of State implementation of their special education programs, ensuring that students and their families receive the services to which they are entitled and have due process when those services are denied. They also work with State vocational rehabilitation programs to ensure that adults with disabilities have acccess to the job training services and independent living services they need to obtain competitive employment and live fulfilling independent lives. With a word, Betsy could stop oversight of these systems and turn the Department into a check vendor. The Department could, under her watch, simply send out the billions of dollars in taxpayer funds each year and not follow up with states to ensure that they are meeting their commitments to individuals with disabilities. She could, in practice, turn these into block grant programs, even if they aren’t under the law. Effective monitoring is important to ensure the protection of individual rights and appropriate use of government resources. Betsy could stop all of that if she wanted to. 

She could also have a devastating impact on higher education by allowing in even more unscrupulous vendors to manage student loan repayments. She could refuse to enforce rules requiring for profit colleges and universities to ensure they their students actually get a job and are capable of repaying their student loans. Right now, if a for profit school puts students $80,000 in debt and try can’t get a job in their field of study, that college can’t participate in the student loan program anymore. Betsy could refuse to enforce that rule and keep the cSh flowing to for profit corporations that don’t provide an education to students. She could make repayment programs less generous to students, burdening those who take lower paying jobs out of college, like teacher or social workers. She could recognize fly-by-night accreditors and open the student loan program to all sorts of unseemly institutions. She could do real damage to students’ financial futures. 

In short, our education system is in peril over the next few years. Nothing is a done deal, but we must remain vigilant. We just have to know where to look for the danger. 

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