Democrats in the Senate Confront Betsy DeVos Over Her Homophobic Views, Demand Civil Rights for Public School Students


The Department of Education must stop its misguided efforts to roll back civil rights protections and ensure all students are treated equally without regard for “race, religions, disability, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” 30 Democratic senators demanded, in a letter this week to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

“We are extraordinarily disappointed and alarmed by recent actions you and your staff have taken that have diminished the U.S. Department of Education’s enforcement of federal civil rights laws,” the letter begins. “Your testimony in front of Congress, your continued association with groups with records of supporting discrimination, and two memos written by the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, have reemphasized longstanding concerns about your dedication to the idea that all students…have a right to receive an education free from discrimination.”

The June 27 letter from the Democratic senators from deep-blue states went as far as formal Washington protocol allows with calling DeVos a liar in public, saying, “You claim to support civil rights and oppose discrimination, but your actions belie your assurances.” The letter starts by citing DeVos’ prior financial support for, and current public appearances with, the homophobic Family Research Council, and her appointment of top Department civil rights staff who have previously opposed efforts to force higher education institutions to more proactively combat campus sexual assaults. 

“These actions appear to reinforce the Trump administration’s efforts to curtail civil rights protections for students and families,” the senators write. “Your Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Candace Johnson, sent a memo to Regional Directors of the Office of Civil Rights scaling back and narrowing the way OCR will approach civil rights enforcement.”

The letter from the senators marks the return of the so-called right-wing culture wars across the federal government. As recently reported, Trump appointees across the federal government, starting under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have been slowly unraveling the basic tenets of civil rights enforcement in recent decades. These include consent decrees with local police departments to stop institutional racism and brutality, withdrawing from voting rights litigation where the government sided with expanding the electorate and declining to step in and investigate individual instances of discrimination in public education.

Candace Johnson, who ProPublica noted “once said she faced discrimination for being white,” recently send several memos that said the department would only look into cases where systemic patterns of discrimination appeared. That is a deliberate diluting of oversight, which has been the way the federal government has enforced civil rights since the mid-20th century.

“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also proposed cutting over 40 positions from the civil rights office. With reduced staff, the office will have to 'make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations,' according to the department’s proposed budget,” ProPublica wrote.

“Elsewhere, Trump administration appointees have launched similar initiatives. In its 2018 fiscal plan, the Labor Department has proposed dissolving the office that handles discrimination complaints. Similarly, new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed entirely eliminating the environmental justice program, which addresses concerns that almost exclusively impact minority communities. The Washington Post reports the plan transfers all environmental justice work to the Office of Policy, which provides policy and regulatory guidance across the agency.”

The letter from 30 Democratic senators minced no words, telling DeVos her proposed staffing cuts and shortened investigations will undermine necessary civil rights protections. That’s because the prior policy of leaving investigations open for years had a deterrent effect as school districts under scrutiny knew the feds could punish them for lapses.

“Closing cases quickly at the expense of the quality of the investigation is not in the long-term interests of the complainants and impedes students, teachers, and families in receiving just solutions,” the senators wrote.

“We are also extremely disappointed in the Department’s failure to take actions to protect transgender students,” they continued, enumerating how DeVos is singlehandedly rolling back the clock and all but endorsing bullying and discrimination.

“More than a third of transgender students report being the subject of harassment or bullying in school, sixty percent of transgender youth report being forced to use bathrooms inconsistent with their gender identity, and half of transgender students have seriously contemplated suicide. Despite these shocking statistics, on Feb. 22, 2017, the Department withdrew [its] joint guidance on transgender student rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”

The senators say DeVos has stonewalled their efforts to get her to explain her actions and her changes to policy and future Department priorities—and urged her to do so. Yet they know, just as many of them saw during the George W. Bush administration, that though DeVos might be shamed in public, she will likely keep using the power of her office to pursue her right-wing agenda. In other words, the right-wing culture wars are back. But when it comes to education, it’s not just DeVos’ homophobia and aversion to diversity that is abhorrent. As is also the case with her privatization policies, she is undermining public education’s basic promise to give all Americans an equal start in life.  

“There is no more serious responsibility to the Department than to ensure consistent, vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws and protections for all students,” the senators write. “The Department must fulfill that responsibility and work tirelessly to promote equality, opportunity and an environment free from discrimination for all our children.”

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