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Civil rights leaders urge rejection of DeVos for DOE post

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

UPDATED 6:30 p.m.

Calling Betsy DeVos "uniquely unqualified" to be the U.S. secretary of education, the heads of leading civil rights organizations Tuesday morning urged the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to reject her nomination by President-elect Donald Trump.

The hearing for DeVos is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday. An ardent supporter of charter schools and vouchers, she has also drawn the fervent opposition of the major teachers’ unions and prominent advocates for public education such as historian Diane Ravitch. Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym is among those who have called for the committee to permit outside testimony on the appointment.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying that "anyone who works, has children in, or attends a public school should be alarmed" by the choice. "DeVos’ anti-public school agenda would be a disaster for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren, who have already endured too many funding cuts."

In a call with journalists, the national civil rights activists were especially concerned that the new administration would halt the work of the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which over the last several years has exposed discriminatory discipline practices and other evidence of unequal treatment of students in schools across the country.

DOE’s "most important work" is protecting students’ civil rights – a task made more important now because more than half the students in public schools are Black or Brown, said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, during the phone call.

Henderson said that "we cannot support" a person who seeks to "undermine" opportunity for all children and ultimately, "public education itself."

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that DeVos’ record "shows no demonstrated commitment to or experience working to advance" key principles of public education, including equity, racial and socioeconomic diversity, and modifying harsh disciplinary practices.

Other organizations on the call included the National Women’s Law Center, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Ifill and others said they feared that DOE under DeVos would stop monitoring whether states are fulfilling their responsibility to provide quality and equitable education to all children.

DeVos is from Michigan, where she has donated heavily to Republican political candidates and causes and strongly promoted the expansion of charter schools and vouchers that students could use to attend private and religious schools. She also successfully lobbied against legislation that would have increased oversight of charter schools.

DeVos shows "little evidence of commitment to public education and equity in education," Ifill said. Her organization has concluded that DeVos "is ill-suited and unprepared to serve" as the nation’s education secretary.

Trump has said he would seek to redirect about $20 billion in federal aid from impoverished schools and districts to voucher programs, an action that could have a huge effect on districts like Philadelphia’s.

You can watch the hearing live on the website of the Senate HELP Committee.

Early in the hearing, DeVos faced strong questioning from Democrats on the panel, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Murray grilled her on ethics and the privatization of public schools, and Sanders asked whether she would support free college and free child care. DeVos mostly parried the questions, saying that she looked forward to trying to find "common ground" and working to meet the needs of all students.

Sanders asked how much money she and her family have contributed to Republican candidates. "I have heard $200 million," he said.

She acknowledged that could be correct.

Sanders then asked: "Do you think if you had not made hundreds of millions [in] political contributions, you would be here today?"

She said: "I do think it is possible. … I have worked very hard for parents and children, particularly low-income children."

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