An Open Letter to Betsy DeVos
When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education in February, TNTP CEO Dan Weisberg wrote her an open letter asking she lay out her vision for the Department, “especially its role in the face of longstanding inequities that many states have left unaddressed.” As she testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Education Department 2018 budget, we continue to keep these concerns in mind.
Dear Secretary DeVos,
Congratulations on officially becoming Secretary of Education. You now have an extraordinary opportunity to help deliver on the promise of public education for millions of children across the country. After watching your confirmation hearing last month, though, I’m concerned that you’re underestimating the magnitude of that opportunity and the responsibility that comes with it.
Time after time, when senators pushed you to explain how you might approach a specific issue as secretary, you deflected the question—often by explaining that you believed the issue was “better left to individual states.”
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I don’t mention this to debate the ideological merits of local control. Fifteen years of working in public education have taught me that the Education Department has a crucial role to play on a wide range of issues, even in a world where states take the lead. More importantly, many states have a long and unfortunate history of failing to live up to their most basic educational obligations, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable students: low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, students from religious minorities, and the children of undocumented immigrants, to name just a few examples. The actions you take—or don’t take—will have tangible consequences for these young people and millions of others.
That’s why it’s so important that you explain to parents, educators, leaders and advocates exactly what you believe the federal government should do when it comes to education, not just what it shouldn’t do. I urge you to swiftly lay out your vision for the Department, especially its role in the face of longstanding inequities that many states have left unaddressed. As part of that, I hope you’ll clarify the role you see the Department playing on five issues:
- High school graduation requirements in many states do not reflect the skills and knowledge students need to be prepared for college or a 21st-century career. As a result, millions of graduates every year enter college only to be shunted into remedial classes—and the overwhelming majority never earn a degree. In the coming year, you will decide whether to approve new accountability plans states are developing to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Will you insist that states set standards that ensure high school diplomas guarantee college and career readiness?
- Suppose you’re presented with evidence that a state is violating the rights of children with disabilities—for example, through a widespread failure to assign them to the least restrictive environment as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), illegally segregating them from their peers and harming them academically. What action would you take to protect the educational rights of these students?
- Research shows that students of color—especially African American students—are suspended at much higher rates than their peers for the same infractions, and lose valuable learning time as a result. In 2014, the Department issued a “Dear Colleague” letter with guidance under Title IV and Title VI that prohibits discipline practices resulting in disparate treatment and impact based on race. Many observers criticized this guidance as “federal overreach,” but philosophical debates aside, I’m sure you agree that students should never be barred from school because of their race. Will you keep this guidance in place? If not, what will you do to address this inequity harming so many students?
- There is an epidemic of bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students across our country, which has contributed to a heartbreakingly high suicide rate among this group. In May, the Department issued guidance jointly with the Department of Justice instructing schools to treat students consistent with their gender identity, respond promptly and effectively to harassment, and to protect privacy of all students. While this guidance, too, garnered widespread criticism, few offered alternative solutions to this widespread problem. What actions will you take to ensure that LGBTQ students are as safe at school as their peers?
- You are a strong advocate for charter schools, voucher programs, and other efforts to provide students with a range of high-quality education options. I’m all for encouraging innovation in education—including high-quality charter schools and even tax credits or vouchers in limited circumstances—and strongly support empowering families to make the best choices for their children. I also recognize that the vast majority of our nation’s students attend traditional public schools—schools that often have deep roots in the communities they serve, and in some cases are the only educational options for parents. While that’s not a reason to insulate schools from changes if they’re consistently failing their students, neither should we ignore the negative economic and cultural impact on a community when a school district is crippled. How will you ensure that any new choice programs give families more quality school options while addressing the wider impact on traditional schools, school systems and the people who depend on them?
Finally, while I was heartened to hear that you believe all students deserve to learn in a “safe environment that is free from discrimination,” I believe the current moment demands an even stronger commitment from you. You work for a president who, along with many members of his senior staff, has routinely made biased and offensive remarks about Latinos, African Americans, women, Muslims, and many other groups. Many of his policy proposals—rolling back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and the recent executive order regarding immigration, for example—could affect the lives of thousands of Americans, including many students and educators.
My organization has the privilege of working with educators, students, and families in dozens of school systems across the country. While you will work on behalf of all students, as is necessary and proper, I urge you to go even further in expressing support for students who have long been subject to systemic bias in our education system and in our society. And I urge you to make it clear that you will place your advocacy on their behalf ahead of your loyalty to the president in cases where the two come into conflict. It would make an enormous difference in the lives and educational experiences of the students and families you’ve championed for so many years.
As you settle into your role, I hope you’ll draw on the many leaders and experts—including me—who stand ready to share their perspectives and help you navigate the federal education policy landscape. I look forward to hearing more about your vision, values, and priority issues in the weeks ahead, and about how you plan to make the most of your opportunity to improve the lives of tens of millions of young people.
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