I haven’t seen the current film about Fred Rogers, but I’m reminded of a story he often related about advice his mother gave him when something terrible or catastrophic happened in the world. She would say, “Always look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Betsy DeVos is not a helper-at least not to the average American. In fact what she’s done since she took over at the helm at the Department of Education has been a whole lot of harm. Here are a few recent examples that deserve our attention.
Rescinding Obama-era School Discipline Guidance:
The guidance was meant to prevent schools from disproportionately punishing minorities. This particular guidance dates from 2014 and clarifies how schools should interpret civil rights laws to make sure schools aren’t discriminating. The guidance recommends the disciplinary tactics like expulsions and suspensions should be scaled back if certain groups of students are receiving harsher punishment than others. In March after the Parkland shooting, when Trump asked DeVos to lead a Federal Commission on School Safety, part of the commission’s mandate involved revisiting the Obama policies. Administration critics of the guidance argue it makes schools less safe to keep disruptive students in the classroom. Other groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) see the guidance as key to protecting vulnerable minority populations which are frequently pushed out of school as a result of disciplinary action.
Title IX Guidelines:
I wrote about this last year in a blog entitled, “Dear Colleagues”, so I won’t elaborate here. At the time, DeVos released new Title IX guidelines that replaced Obama administration requirements about fighting sexual misconduct on college campuses. Organizations like the National Women’s Law Center complained, saying that DeVos’ actions protected a culture of sexual violence on college campuses rather than protecting the victims.
Team Investigating Abuses by For-profit Colleges:
Members of this team under the U.S. Dept. of Education have recently been re-assigned or instructed to focus on other issues. What this has done is essentially stopped investigations into abuses by the for-profit colleges. Many of the investigations involve schools where some of DeVos’ appointees once worked. What the team was tasked with looking at were advertising, recruitment practices, and job placement claims on the part of the schools. One institution being examined was DeVry Education Group. In fact, the DeVry investigation stalled when DeVos named Julian Schmoke as the investigative team’s supervisor. Schmoke is a former dean at DeVry. Many of the institutions that were under scrutiny are accused of misrepresenting enrollment benefits, job placement rates, and program offerings. Leading the charge against shutting down the inquiries was Senator Elizabeth Warren who said, “Secretary DeVos has filled the department with for-profit college hacks who only care about making sham schools rich and shutting down investigations into fraud.” This leads directly into the next category.
Gainful Employment Rule:
Secretary DeVos has been delaying the Gainful Employment Rule’s disclosure requirements. The requirements compel relevant educational institutions to provide prospective students with accurate information about educational programs, including total cost, average debt load, student loan default rate, and average earnings of program graduates. The requirements are supposed to prevent aggressive and deceptive marketing and are supposed to be provided to students in promotional materials prior to that student committing to attending one of these for-profit schools. June marks the third time the department has delayed disclosure of the required information in promotional materials from going into effect.
On July 18 the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sent a letter to DeVos that was co-signed by 16 other attorneys general including Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro. In the letter, the AGs object to the delay in the required disclosures of the Gainful Employment Rule saying, “Students count on the Department to protect their interests and ensure that schools participating in the federal student loan program treat them fairly and give them accurate information to assist them in their decisions. In addition, taxpayers count on the Department to ensure accountability from schools that receive federal funds.” In issuing the letter New York’s attorney general, Barbara Underwood stated, “Over and over again, the Trump-DeVos Department of Education has put special interests before the students they’re supposed to serve. The Gainful Employment Rule is critical to ensuring students can make informed decision about their education – and the Department’s continued delays only leave students vulnerable to exploitation and fraud.”
My grandparents were not wealthy people, but they would often say with pride that they were able to put all four of their children through college unaided, at one point all at the same time. How many families can say that today, even with 529 plans, student loans, and financial aid?
For so many, the price tag makes higher education prohibitive. Even if you don’t think it’s the federal government’s role to provide free higher education for its citizens, surely you would agree that certain protections need to be kept in place for our young people, who today are leaving college with not only a degree but crippling debt.
Let’s look at a snapshot of the student loan debt situation in the U.S.
General student loan debt facts:
To many this is a familiar picture. With so much at stake, one would hope our government had our backs. And remember the stated mission of the Dept. of Ed. is: “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Unfortunately for many students, DeVos is failing in that mission. One complaint has come from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is accusing the Dept. of Ed. of blocking its suit against one student loan giant, Navient. The suit charges that the company, “caused borrowers to struggle unnecessarily by steering them towards repayment plans that weren’t in their best interest and ignoring borrowers’ instructions about how their payments should be allocated.” Earlier this year, DeVos seemed to side with the company when she released a memo saying the states couldn’t regulate student loan companies hired by the federal government because those fell under the jurisdiction of federal regulations, not state laws.
However, once again state attorneys general have stepped in to try to at least get some accountability. New Jersey and Washington State AGs sent a letter to DeVos on July 13th also co-signed by Josh Shapiro and 17 others in response to the department’s decision to limit the disclosure of certain student loan information to protect borrowers from predatory practices. Since 2000, the Department of Education regularly disclosed this information. Without it, it will be harder for states to identify unlawful conduct and take the legal action necessary to protect students. Part of the letter reads: “Unfortunately, the Department has stopped sharing the information that State Attorneys General have used in these efforts without providing any rationale for its decision. And now, with the formal elimination of its policy on routine disclosures of information for use by law enforcement agencies, the Department risks further hampering the ability of State Attorneys General and other law enforcement officials to protect students from predatory practices and to secure relief for students victimized by fraud and other unlawful activities. The Department’s policy change seems to send a signal: law enforcement agencies working to combat crime, fraud, and other unlawful conduct can no longer count on the Department as a reliable partner.”
In these instances and in many others not only related to education, state attorneys general have stepped up to hold the administration and Betsy DeVos accountable. Maybe they’re the helpers Mister Rogers’ mother was talking about.
Click here for more data on the student loan debt
posted by Amy Levengood in collaboration with Paul Eaken