In his first speech before a joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump called education “the civil rights issue of our time,” even as his actions threaten to significantly weaken the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ statements over the past couple weeks call into question whether she will prioritize civil rights issues at the department — and the Trump administration’s reported choices to lead the Office for Civil Rights suggest its enforcement may be significantly weakened.
The office handles complaints about the violations of rights of students with disabilities, Title IX violations (including those related to women’s access to sports and campus rape investigations), and racially disparate student discipline.
In an interview earlier this month with Axios, DeVos was asked whether, in an ideal world, the federal government would have a role in education. She said she hadn’t reached a conclusion, and that although there was a “time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams,” and “we had segregated schools,” she couldn’t think of other remaining issues where the federal government should intervene.
“I can’t think of any now,” DeVos said.
DeVos has also promised to audit the Education Department and told a Michigan radio show host earlier this month she guarantees “there are things the department has been doing that are probably not necessary or important for a federal agency to do.”
Civil rights groups are concerned about who the Trump administration would pick to lead the Office for Civil Rights. This week, more than 60 civil rights groups signed a letter to DeVos urging her to pick an OCR head who will do the following: collect and report data that shows where students don’t have access to equal opportunity in education; investigate system discrimination; and ensure justice for students who report discrimination through complaints to the office.
DeVos pledged that the office would keep investigating claims of discrimination against LGBTQ students, but that statement may ring hollow given that the Trump administration moved to roll back protections for transgender students last week. Although education secretaries have historically had a role to play in choosing the head of the OCR, it falls on Trump’s shoulders to make the pick.
And one of the people being considered to lead the OCR — University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot — has a track record of criticizing the office’s approach to Title IX violations related to campus sexual assault, as well as its guidance on transgender students’ rights.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said of Heriot, “With these individuals in place, it is hard to imagine much good happening at the federal level. Even if they do not rescind other department positions on integration, school discipline, English language learners, and school resources, they are very unlikely to enforce existing regulations and policy guidance.”
In addition to concerns that the OCR will be weakened, Trump’s interest in expanding private school vouchers could create exacerbate civil rights violations. Trump said in his address before Congress:
I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.
But there isn’t evidence to show that vouchers actually improve the quality of education students receive or boost student achievement. Recent research shows that in many cases, vouchers hurt student learning.
Vouchers can also increase racial and economic school segregation. Many years of research have shown that choice programs tend to benefit advantaged students the most. In schools where the population is predominantly African American, black students are suspended at higher rates. And harsh student discipline against students of color fuels the school-to-prison pipeline, and reduces opportunities for the disadvantaged youth Trump refers to.