Betsy DeVos' actions betray her rhetoric on enforcing civil rights law, 34 Senate Democrats wrote in a sharply worded letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education on Tuesday.
The four-page memo asserts that DeVos claims to support civil rights while backing contrary policies.
"We are extraordinarily disappointed and alarmed by recent actions you and your staff have taken that have diminished ... [the department's] enforcement of federal civil rights laws," wrote the group led by Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the education committee. "Your actions belie your assurances."
The Democrats penned the letter shortly after two directives from Candice Jackson, DeVos' point person on civil rights, came to light. One Jackson memo stated that civil rights investigators no longer need to look back at least three years when researching cases, and pulls back on federal oversight of the department's regional offices.
The other directive is the replacement of President Obama's guidelines for transgender students, which DeVos rescinded. In a reversal of department policy, the new guidance does not assert a specific right for transgender students to use the school bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. The Jackson directive does not include bathroom access on a list of areas investigators are encouraged to scrutinize in school systems.
In light of these shifts, the senators asked for more details and records on how department officials are dealing with civil rights cases.
The Democrats also registered additional concerns:
- DeVos' hiring of Adam Kissel, a 1st Amendment advocate at the Koch Foundation, as deputy assistant secretary for higher education. The Democrats noted that Kissel criticized Obama-era guidelines targeting sexual assault on college campuses.
- Her invitation to groups that had supported gay conversion therapy to an "Engaging Fathers and Families" event.
A DeVos spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a Murray spokeswoman said her office had received no response by late Tuesday.