How Betsy DeVos Undermines Civil Rights and Favors Predatory Lenders Over Students

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, joins us to discuss recent developments with billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime backer of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. DeVos said earlier this month that she wanted to return the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights "to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency." An official with the office came under fire last week after she said that most campus rape claims amount to two young people who are "both drunk." Meanwhile, attorneys general in 18 states are suing DeVos and the Department of Education over a rule to protect student loan borrowers that was set to go into effect on July 1, until DeVos announced a "reset" of the rule, known as "borrower defense to repayment."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime backer of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. She has said she considers education a, quote, "industry," and called the public school system a "dead end." A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, however, found that students attending for-profit charter schools have significantly lower academic gains than those attending nonprofit charters.

AMY GOODMAN: DeVos is back in the news this month after she said she wanted to return the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, quote, "to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency," unquote. An official with the office came under fire last week after she said that most campus rape claims amount to two young people who are "both drunk." Meanwhile, attorney generals in 18 states and the District of Columbia are suing DeVos and the Department of Education over a rule to protect student loan borrowers that was set to go into effect July 1st, until DeVos announced a "reset" of the rule, known as "borrower defense to repayment."

To discuss all this and more, we’re joined by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

It’s good to have you with us. Can you assess, starting with today and the latest news, what’s happening in the Department of Education?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Yes. It’s a disaster. I mean, it’s—so, what we said—so, we’ve spent a lot of time, as we just talked about before, in Michigan. And we watched Betsy DeVos when she was, you know, an advocate for privatization and charters and for busting up public schools in Michigan. And we said she was the most anti-education secretary who had ever gotten that position. And I think everything she’s done since then has proven that.

So this is what she’s doing. Number one, it’s not just promoting for-profit charters and vouchers, but it’s also taking a meat ax to the federal budget that goes to vulnerable kids, both in education and in healthcare. That’s number one. That’s part of the budget. Number two, she is cutting the enforcement. And number three, probably more important than anything, even though I think the budget cuts are really important, is that an agency that is supposed to be about equity, that is supposed to fight for the vulnerable, she is focused—she is squarely on the side of lenders instead of borrowers. And you see that with the borrower defense rule you just talked about. She is squarely on the side of—you know, of the powerful and not the vulnerable. So, she’s stripped away the transgender rules, the stuff that’s going on with campus violence and campus rape—and what Candice Jackson said, saying, essentially, even though she apologized, that, you know, 90 percent of these cases are because somebody is drunk. And now the entity that is supposed to be there to protect against discrimination, protect and ensure that people have a shot at education, she’s saying, is now going to be neutral.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Randi, the importance of her hiring as one of her deputy assistant secretaries Adam Kissel, who comes out of the Koch Foundation—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —for higher education?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, this is what—it’s not just the fox guarding the hen house. This is an active, active undermining of the equity and discrimination rules that were embedded since Johnson in terms of the Department of Education. So it’s cutting the money for public schools. It’s preferring lenders over—and for-profit colleges over students. And now it is actively undermining what OCR, the Office of Civil Rights, is supposed to do for the vulnerable.

Let me add one more thing, because the healthcare bill comes into this, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, wanted to ask you about that. Yes.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Seventy-eight percent of school districts in America use Medicaid. Seventy-eight percent. So if you—if you take the healthcare bill, that basically takes a huge whack out of Medicare, ends Medicare as we know it, that then hugely hurts every child in these 78 percent of districts—wheelchairs, feeding tubes, the screening and these kinds of things. So, this is taking a whack out of the most vulnerable, taking away funding from those who—from people who are poor, who need opportunity, like after-school programs and things like that, and then, on top of it, basically, not just undermining the enforcement, but basically saying, "We are no longer going to be the agency that makes sure that there’s no discrimination for America’s schoolchildren."

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this latest news on OCR, the Office of Civil Rights. Explain the implications of this.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So, what—since—from the moment—from all of the civil rights laws back to the 1960s, one of them was the education law. There was public access. There was voting. There was education. And part—and what was created was the Office of Civil Rights. And so, there was a presumption that that office was going to fight against discrimination and fight for equity. This was not just something that Barack Obama did. This goes back to every president, Republican and Democrat alike. And so, when she says she’s going to make that agency neutral, she is taking a step away from the enforcement of civil rights laws.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Neutral between the perpetrators of discrimination and the victims of discrimination.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I mean, how do you make—how do you make a law that—where—you know, look, I represent a union. I represent people. I believe people should have due process. And I believe there are false accusations. But, frankly, as a survivor, as a rape survivor, how do you not create some kind of climate to actually help people tell their stories and get redress? And it’s not just on—you know, it’s not just in terms of Title IX, but it’s every other law. I mean, think about what happened after Brown v. Board of Education. Think about how the so-called choice movement was used by segregationists to stop people from having—stop black and brown kids from having opportunity. So, the OCR, that entity, is the one that people go to in order to enforce discrimination laws.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what alternative is there at the state level to be able to beat back some of these things that are happening now—

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, the good—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —at the level of the federal Department of Education?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, the great thing is that 18—you know, we went to—we went to the attorney generals. It is fantastic that the attorney generals, 18 or 21 of them, are now, you know, suing to enforce the borrower defense law—or, regulation. I mean, what this essentially means—let me just—because those are code words. What this essentially means is that Corinthian College went bankrupt. All these kids were left holding the bag, with the student debts. What the borrower defense law means—or, rule means, is that just like Corinthian gets its debts discharged in bankruptcy, these kids should not be holding the bag. That’s what it means. So, the AGs are suing on that. And look, we—thankfully, we were able, in a bipartisan way, to get the new federal law covering K-12 passed last year in the Congress. And even Lamar Alexander just said to Betsy DeVos, "You’re misreading the law."

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about—well, NPR is reporting Wayne Johnson will be the new head of Office of Federal Student Aid, after James Runcie abruptly resigned last month.


AMY GOODMAN: This is according to the Department of Education. FSA is an agency responsible for administering $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loans from 42 million borrowers, plus aid programs for millions of college students. As not mentioned in the department’s press release and first reported by BuzzFeed, Johnson is currently the CEO of Reunion Financial Services Corporation, a private student loan company.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Right. I mean, this is—I don’t think saying the fox guarding the hen house is enough to describe what is going on. You basically have people from an industry that bilked kids, that have had predatory practices, now running the student aid programs. And it’s just—again, it is this preference, this out-and-out preference for the lenders, for the for-profit colleges, that we have fought for the last several years. Like, you can’t give worthless degrees and leave kids holding the bag with unsustainable debt. And basically, we are winding back the clock on this, as well as on rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Randi Weingarten, we want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the American Federation of Teachers, as we move on to other education news.


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