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Editorial: Another loss for Betsy DeVos, another win for students

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, shown speaking at the White House in March.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, shown speaking at the White House in March, has twice been stopped by courts from interfering with the flow of coronavirus relief dollars to schools.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a curiously enduring member of President Trump’s Cabinet. Maybe it’s because he’s not all that interested in education — he seldom mentions it beyond demanding that all students return to campus full time, no matter what experts on the coronavirus say. But it might have something to do with DeVos’ masterful ability to accomplish almost nothing for public education, which would fall in line with the president’s priorities.

It’s not hard by now to predict how DeVos will approach any given issue: She will attempt to remove protections from students, especially when it comes to shielding them from unscrupulous for-profit colleges. And she will attempt to channel money toward private schools instead of public ones, even when that involves public dollars. The courts have repeatedly overruled her efforts to undermine students.

So it was no surprise when a federal judge issued a stinging preliminary injunction late last week against DeVos’ latest scheme: a plan to funnel a hefty dose of federal coronavirus relief money toward affluent private-school students even though it was intended for the education of low-income kids. DeVos attempted to rewrite part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act by requiring school districts to set aside money for private schools based on those schools’ entire enrollment, not on their numbers of disadvantaged kids. That would not only be a gross misuse of the money Congress approved for students in need, but it would also take scarce funds away from public schools to benefit private ones.

U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein called DeVos’ attempt “remarkably callous, and blind to the realities of this extraordinary pandemic and the very purpose of the CARES Act: to provide emergency relief where it is most needed.”

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The ruling came just a few months after California’s community colleges had successfully challenged another attempt by DeVos to interfere unconscionably with the spending of CARES money.

In that case, DeVos decided on her own that large swaths of community college students, including those covered under the DACA program, did not qualify for the emergency assistance the act provided. The money was meant to help students buy food, basic necessities and computers and other technology so they could attend online classes.

Again and again, DeVos has devoted her time in office not to improving learning for the nation’s students but rather to interfering with their legitimate needs and rights. Not only did she lose in court after improperly collecting student loan payments from those who had been defrauded by now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain that had repeatedly misled prospective students about their job-placement prospects, but she also was found in contempt of court in late 2019 for ignoring the previous ruling against her. Then she was sued for the same thing in May, well after she’d said she was fixing the problem.

Earlier in 2019, she ensured that students would continue to default on college debt by rescinding an Obama administration rule that required for-profit trade and technical colleges to show that the students they recruited with rosy projections about job prospects had at least a decent chance of finding employment after graduation. Under the “gainful employment” rule, students at schools that fell short wouldn’t qualify for federally guaranteed loans in the first place. DeVos’ action, which faces legal challenge, is a bad deal for taxpayers as well. These schools’ graduates have defaulted on their federal loans at a hugely disproportionate rate, leaving the public with billions of dollars in costs.

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In other words, DeVos’ three-plus years in office have been spent undermining real education, not strengthening it. Agree or not with the policies of the past five or so Education secretaries, their aim was to try to improve outcomes for public-school students. DeVos’ goals have consisted almost solely of helping private enterprise, even when it does wrong.

Perhaps her worst moments weren’t in the things she did but those she didn’t. She blew the chance she had this year to rise to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been an educational disaster as well as a health and economic one.

To her credit, she gave the OK in the spring to suspend standardized tests for the year, though that was a no-brainer. There was no way to even administer the tests. But public schools have needed guidance, advice, sample curriculums, support — as well as urgent pushes to give online students computers and more instructional time.

DeVos’ contribution: Telling public schools, as they were sending students to learn at home with no access in many cases to computers or the internet, that they still had to meet the needs of students with disabilities, with no suggestions on how they might do that. Demanding that all students return to campus full-time this fall without guidance on how to avoid crowded classrooms and protect against disease spread, especially in areas with surging infection rates. Then trying to give away a bunch of their money to private schools.

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DeVos is running out of time to show that she is more than the clueless nominee who had no grasp at her confirmation hearing of the debate over how to measure school quality and whose most memorable moment was suggesting that a Wyoming school might need guns to protect itself against trespassing bears. The nation is still waiting for a real secretary of Education.


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