Secretary v. secretary

Arne Duncan criticizes Betsy DeVos on civil rights, says she hasn’t asked for his advice

PHOTO: Chuck Kennedy/The White House

When Arne Duncan became U.S. Secretary of Education, he asked predecessors of both parties for advice. That’s why he’s disappointed that he hasn’t gotten a similar call from the new secretary, Betsy DeVos.

“I reached out to everybody, not as a courtesy but because I had so much to learn — whether it was Secretary Riley who happened to serve a Democratic president or whether it was Secretary Spellings or Rod Paige,” both of the George W. Bush administration, Duncan said. “You’re going to agree on some things and disagree on others, but at the end of the day you’re all there for the same reason, theoretically.”

“What I learned from them was invaluable,” he said.

Duncan has become a sharp critic of DeVos’s tenure to date, especially the education department’s decision to rescind guidance related to transgender students and the Trump administration’s budget proposal. He’s gone so far as to tell charter leaders to refuse federal charter dollars if they came alongside large cuts to all public schools. He said that it would amount to “blood money.”

The budget has also been criticized by DeVos’s immediate predecessor, John King.

“Any rollback on rights — whether it’s special needs kids, LGBT kids, any rollback in terms of Title IX enforcement, civil rights enforcement — that’s a little mind-boggling to me, hard to understand, hard to justify,” said Duncan, who is now a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, working with young men to reduce gun violence in Chicago. (The Emerson Collective, through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, supports Chalkbeat.)

Liz Hill, the Department of Education’s press secretary, defended the department’s Office of Civil Rights and DeVos’s record in a statement.

“During the prior administration, [the Office of Civil Rights’] reputation as a fair and neutral enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws suffered as it sacrificed timely, neutral adjudications of individual complaints in favor of data collection efforts. Under this system, too many students waited months and even years for adjudication. That will not be the case under this Administration,” Hill said. “The Secretary’s commitment to OCR’s mission is unwavering and the office will defend all students to the fullest extent possible under the law.”

Meanwhile, as secretary, DeVos has issued a number of criticisms of the Obama administration, including Duncan’s school turnaround initiative. The fact that a federal study did not find benefits of the expensive program has become a favorite talking point of DeVos.

Sniping between a former Obama administration official and a Trump cabinet head would normally be unremarkable. But Duncan’s comments are more complicated because the education reform movement — including the expansion of charter schools and efforts to hold schools and teachers responsible for student test scores — has long held a bipartisan imprimatur.

Duncan, in particular, has received praised from the likes of Republicans Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Lamar Alexander. (Many conservatives, though, soured on his approach, arguing that he engaged in federal overreach by incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core standards, among other moves.)

And Duncan, like DeVos, has supported the growth of charter schools. His signature initiative, Race to the Top, pushed states to lift or eliminate caps on charter schools. DeVos’s home state of Michigan, for instance, passed a 2010 law that expanded charters and allowed for the creation of two fully virtual schools in order to compete for federal money.

Duncan tried to distinguish his position on charter schools from DeVos’s.

“When you just focus on proliferation or growth rather than on quality, you absolutely hurt the movement,” he said. “I am not a supporter of charters; I’m a supporter of high-quality charters.”

Some say that Duncan’s policies haven’t always led to that — like in Michigan, where critics say the charter sector has lacked oversight and produced chaos. Last year, John King described the performance of Michigan charter schools as “uneven.”

Does Duncan have any regrets about his role in expanding charters?

No, Duncan said, pointing to a speech he gave in 2013 to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools where he reiterated his support for the charter movement but challenged its leaders to be “more vocal and to step out on charter schools that weren’t succeeding, bad charter schools.”

When DeVos spoke to same group earlier this year, she issued a different challenge, encouraging charter leaders not to see themselves as the best solution, but to focus on school choice more broadly. She remained mum on to what extent charters should be held accountable for their academic performance.

Duncan says he believes there should be four overarching national goals for education: to expand “high-quality” pre-kindergarten; continue to improve high school graduation rates; ensure graduates are ready for college and careers; and “lead the world in college completion rates.”

“I haven’t heard one sentence from this administration about any of those goals; it’s lot of small-ball stuff,” he said.

In response, Hill pointed to DeVos’s priorities. “The Secretary is championing a robust agenda to reduce the federal role in education, expand school choice and empower parents,” she said, along with making changes to the Higher Education Act and federal student aid to “better serve students and taxpayers.”

However, DeVos may soon have one thing in common with Duncan: The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, demanded Duncan resign in 2014. Earlier this year, NEA issued a letter to DeVos listing a number of concerns. If she does not address them by Sept. 1, the group will call on her to resign, too.

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.