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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a House committee hearing.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a House committee hearing.

Defending her discipline decision, Betsy DeVos says Obama-era guidance amounted to ‘quotas’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced sharp questions Tuesday from Democratic lawmakers about her rollback of federal school discipline guidelines.

Her answers didn’t break much new ground — but they did offer a vivid illustration of an ongoing disagreement about discrimination.

The guidance in question was issued by the Obama administration and told school districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and to examine how students of different racial groups were punished. Disparities, it said, could prompt a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law.

Progressives and civil rights groups saw the guidance as critical to ensuring black and Hispanic students were not disproportionately removed from classrooms. Conservatives maintained that the rules made schools less safe as they shied away from needed discipline.

When DeVos scrapped the guidance in December, she tied it to other recommendations meant to improve school safety in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The connection is what California Rep. Barbara Lee asked DeVos to explain here, prompting that back and forth about discrimination:

DeVos: Congresswoman, no child should be treated or disciplined differently based on his or her race or color or national origin. And if and when they are, our Office for Civil Rights will act swiftly — has acted swiftly. Children need to be treated as individuals, not as statistics. Lee: But they’re not being treated as individuals. That’s why — DeVos: They are. Lee: — we have this order put in place. And you rescinded that. DeVos: Again, any student that is treated or disciplined differently because of his or her color or race — that is not acceptable. Lee: Madame Secretary, the department of civil rights — your own Department of Education Office of Civil Rights — indicated that students of color are suspended three times more than white students. We put into place some requirements that would begin to turn this around. You rescinded those requirements. So what message does that send to school districts? DeVos: No student should be treated or disciplined differently based on their race. Lee: But Madame Secretary, they are treated differently. DeVos: No. If they are, it’s discrimination. The Office for Civil Rights — Lee: But then why in the world would you rescind the orders that would correct for this? DeVos: The letter amounted to quotas. Children are individuals, not a statistic. Lee: Madame Secretary, this didn’t involve quotas. This gave direction on how to correct this horrible problem that we have throughout the country.

The discussion of quotas is really a debate about what kinds of discrimination the government is supposed to police. DeVos, echoing many conservative education observers, is insisting that her department’s role is to investigate when individual students are discriminated against because of their race. Rep. Lee, echoing civil rights groups, is insisting that her mandate extends further — to watch for systemic disparities and then to intervene on behalf of entire groups.

DeVos never directly addressed why the change was tied to the broader package of school safety changes, in part because she was cut off by lawmakers.

“The guidance, we heard from many many different quarters — the guidance was actually harming schools’ opportunities,” she said.