Charter school champion Betsy DeVos

A menace to education, especially for women and girls

Protesters await DeVos at a Washington, D.C. middle school on Feb. 10, 2017. PHOTO: Maria Danilova / AP
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Trump appointees clearly need a conflict of interest to get a job in the cabinet. The Department of Labor director is anti-union. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate change denier. The Attorney General opposes voting rights. And Betsy DeVos, Department of Education chief, opposes public education.

She and her family have long far-right pedigrees. Her billionaire father funded the Family Research Council,* a a right-wing bunch that has long agitated against women’s and queer rights and cozies up to white supremacists like Richard Spenser. Her brother, Eric Prince, founded Blackwater, the notorious mercenary army. DeVos and her husband support “Christian-based” education, promote publicly funded unregulated charter schools, and orchestrated passage of Michigan’s right-to-work law. Her appointment is a declaration of war against education equity, especially for women and girls.

Schooling for the elite, white and straight. DeVos wants to replace public schools with charters and vouchers. This takes public money and gives it to for-profit schools, creating a system segregated by race, poverty and gender.

Charter schools are generally non-union. They are largely unregulated, not held to the same standards as public schools, and lie about getting superior results. They are allowed to discriminate by disability, race, parent involvement, academic performance or English language ability. Charters are a disaster for students of color and poor, immigrant, and students with special needs.

Vouchers are public funds that pay part of the tuition cost of a private school. Most are run by religious organizations and are exempt from federal rules against discrimination. For example, private schools can deny admission to lesbian, gay and trans students.

DeVos’ profit-driven education policy aims to bust the National Education Association, the largest union in the U.S. It guts the public institution where more than two-thirds of the workers are women. In most cities, they are predominantly women of color.

New Orleans — canary in a coal mine. Before Hurricane Katrina, most public school workers were represented by the same union and had the same benefits. Then, a state board elected by Louisiana’s white majority took over from the local board elected by New Orleans’ Black majority. They then closed the schools and fired 7,000 workers, the majority Black women. This broke the country’s largest Black, female-led union. Today, 92 percent of New Orleans students attend charter schools. Most non-teaching work is done by Volunteers of America participants or employees working at minimum wages. Segregation has intensified, as charters can reject neighborhood residents, and students are bused to wherever they can get admitted.

Title IX in the crosshairs. Title IX was built on the gains of the ’60s Civil Rights movement. Best known for enforcing access to sports, Title IX protects women’s rights in education by prohibiting gender discrimination at federally-funded schools. DeVos’ first attack on Title IX overturned Obama-era protections for trans students. But there’s more.

For decades, women have organized for serious investigations and safety from rape. Sexual assault on campus is obviously an academic impediment for women. Title IX guidelines mandate colleges investigate sexual assault thoroughly. Administrations that fail to comply can be disciplined and even lose federal funding.

One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Women of color are at increased risk, with Native American women almost twice as likely to be raped than any other race. An appalling 21 percent of transgender students have been sexually assaulted in one year alone.

DeVos’ response? Meet with men’s rights groups portraying themselves as victims of frame-ups. She concludes the campus climate has swung too far. DeVos recently announced plans to roll back guidelines that call for universities to complete quicker investigations, lower the standard of evidence of assault, prevent harassment on campus, and stop victim nondisclosure agreements.

Drowning in student debt. Women shoulder enormous debt to pay for college or training programs. They hold nearly two thirds of the $1.3 trillion in student debt. Predatory, for-profit institutions lure students, particularly African Americans and immigrants, into loans. Black women must take on more student debt than any other group. Gender and race pay gaps make it impossible to repay — 57 percent of Black women repaying loans can’t make basic expenses.

DeVos’ department has frozen debt-forgiveness programs, including assistance to defrauded students or those left in the lurch by private university closures.

Roll up those sleeves. Women’s drive for education, led by Black women, is a heroic chapter in U.S. working-class history. During and after Reconstruction, African American women led in establishing schools for newly freed Blacks and poor whites in the face of racist violence. Women, including immigrant women, fostered the expansion of public education with passage of child labor laws. Current times call for unions, feminists, civil rights activists, and public education warriors to work together against Betsy DeVos. What’s needed is fully-funded, quality public education through college, and all student debt cancelled. History, and our future, demands no less.

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*This paragraph as originally published was changed to more accurately characterize the politics of the Family Research Council.

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