Education Under Betsy Devos’ Administration


Charter Schools Under the Current Administration

With President Trump as a charter school ally, opinions about the educational policies and funding of charter schools have become increasingly polarized. Under the current administration, federal charter school grants have increased by $60 million, a sum that is  being drawn from the public system budget. This action has sparked frustration from both supporters and dissenters of the charter school system. 

Like public schools, charter schools receive and use government funding; however, they operate under different regulations that aren’t established by the state. Instead, the rules are laid out according to the charter school’s contract and each state’s unique charter legislation

Charter schools were created with the hope of unleashing innovation within the public school system. Proponents envisioned these schools as laboratories for testing new teaching techniques that would be incorporated into traditional public schools if successful. Others saw them as an additional means of education that is not dictated by one’s neighborhood or their wealth. Since the opening of the first charter school in Minnesota in 1992, the popularity of charter schools has escalated. California was quick to adopt the charter school system and, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is home to the most charter schools in the nation, with 1,234 charter institutions in 2016. Part of the enormous appeal of these schools lies in their independence, allowing for more creativity in curriculum than available in public schools guided by state and federal regulations. 

Like public schools, charter schools receive and use government funding; however, they operate under different regulations that aren’t established by the state. Instead, the rules are laid out according to the charter school’s contract and each state’s unique charter legislation. As long as they abide by the conditions set by their charters, charter school operators have the freedom to determine many academic and logistical aspects, such as the number of school days and the hiring process. Unfortunately, not all operators hold the quality of education in their best interests. Some administrators take advantage of the flexibility and easily get away with misdemeanors. Historically, charter school operators have been known to use public funds for personal benefit, requesting extra funding without a legitimate reason, and inflating enrollment numbers. These are coupled with stories of inadequately fed students and prevelant failure to conduct criminal background checks during hiring. 

Earlier in 2019, an investigation led by The Times revealed that Clark and Jeanette Parker, the founders of Today’s Fresh Start Charter School in Los Angeles, exploited the millions earned in profits from their schools to rent buildings they own. From the charters, the Parkers also received services for their nonprofits and companies, taxpayer money, and consulting fees, little of which was directed towards educational resources. The Parkers’ wealthy Beverly Hills lifestyle starkly contrasted the conditions observed  in their schools: outdated computers, limited textbooks, no Internet access, and a general lack of management. 

Cases like the Parkers’ have become prolific throughout the nation and reveal a fractured regulatory system. The lack of action from the federal government has only soured the reputation of the charter school system. Critics point out that despite increasing the charter schools’ already enormous funding, the Trump administration (and previous federal executives) neglects to impose measures to control fraud, abuse, and mismanagement that have been linked to charter schools. Although some of these charter organizations, including KIPP and Green Dot Public Schools, have been successful in meeting the ideal charter mission, those headed by unscrupulous entrepreneurs have cost the funds, resources, and academic diversity of traditional public schools for corrupt causes. 

The problem is magnified in states where charter school offenses are handled with lax consequences. One such state is California, which allows troubled charter operations to escape sanction by transferring school districts, and whose Board of Education has sided with charters over local school districts in 70% of appeals (The Los Angeles Times). 

A fair share of charter schools have proved to be a suitable alternative to traditional public and private schools, but the need for stricter reform through regulation grows. While charter supporters are distancing themselves from the Trump administration, Democrats have attempted to align the charter movement with Devos and Trump. They are proposing legislation that would limit the amount of charter schools permitted in each state, give school districts more authority over charter schools and instate a five year moratorium preventing new schools from opening. The hope is that these changes will be incorporated to create a charter school system that uses its generous federal funds with integrity.

US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights

The Trump administration has greatly changed the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. One of the biggest influences were the regulations that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed for Title IX in 2018. The new regulations attempted to reduce the accountability of schools, however, it is seen by many to only give more protection to those who are accused of sexual misconduct.

Title IX was first passed in 1972 under the Education Amendments in order to stop sexual discrimination in education. Under the law, schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment or else federal funding would be cut. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights under President Obama’s administration issued the “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter dictated certain procedures that schools must follow in the case of an accusation of sexual misconduct between students.

In 2018, DeVos proposed new regulations of Title IX to replace the Obama administration’s guidance. One new regulation was that the student accused of sexual assault is guaranteed a cross-examination. The examination could be done in a live hearing with lawyers or advisors and the two parties could be in separate rooms if necessary. However, the Obama administration did not recommend cross-examination since it holds a great possibility that it may bring back the trauma for victims. Another regulation made was that colleges would only need to investigate cases that happen on campus or during educational activities. In addition, the definition of sexual harassment was redefined to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.” which narrows the amount that the college would need to take action when facing a sexual assault case. The new regulation also would give schools more of a choice to gather proof for cases based on the preponderance of evidence or clear and convincing evidence standards. The preponderance of evidence standard is where if there was evidence that showed there was sexual misconduct, schools must take actions and discipline the convicted students, which is what the Obama administration guided. However, clear and convincing evidence standards require evidence that needs to substantially be more true than untrue. With this, it would be harder for victims to be able to gather evidence that achieves the requirements of the clear and convincing standard, which could discourage victims to report sexual misconduct cases.

In an interview with the New York Times in 2017, the Outreach in the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education Candice Jackson said, “the accusations — 90% of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’” about accusations of sexual misconduct in schools. Although Jackson later apologized about the statement, it sparked controversy with sexual assault victims. Overall, the new changes implemented into Title IX is estimated to save about a few

hundred million dollars over the course of the next few years. Colleges and universities found that the new changes took some pressure off when handling cases of sexual misconduct. When Title IX was under the Obama administration, colleges and universities thought that the law captured too broad of a range to the point that it may have been invading student’s academic freedom. Experts believe that since the new Title IX changes will require less investigation but it will increase the number of lawsuits against schools for mishandling cases of sexual misconduct.

New Rulings on Student Loans

The education department has finalized a rule which makes it far more difficult for future student loan recipients to receive relief from the government if they are victims of fraud. Under new regulations, borrowers seeking loan forgiveness will need to meet far more requirements : they must prove that their college made a deceptive statement “with knowledge of its false, misleading, or deceptive nature or reckless disregard for truth,” demonstrate that their reliance on such claim led to their decision to enroll at the school, and the degree of financial harm which the deception brought. Though borrowers must repay loans even if they drop out, are unhappy with their education, or cannot find a job in the field they trained for, their loans can be eliminated if they can prove that their school defrauded them or broke certain rules. DeVos is trying to make this process stricter and harder to prove for the borrowers. 

Though previously, there was no deadline to submit claims, DeVos set a three-year deadline from the date that students graduate or leave their school. Diane Auer Jones, the Education Department Principal Deputy undersecretary, said that “three years is enough time for borrowers to determine whether or not there has been a misinterpretation.”

The new rules also eliminate the “automatic closed school discharge” (a program that wipes away the loans of students whose school closed before they could complete their degree). Before, loans were eliminated if a school shut down before loan recipients could finish their education unless they transfer their credits to another school. The 2016 rules required the education department to automatically eliminate student debts if the students did not enroll elsewhere within three years. That approach has contributed to the discharge of $222 million in loans owed by nearly 20,000 borrowers, according to the Education Department data gathered by the National Student Legal Defense Network. Now, student borrowers will have to pay for their loans even if their school closes down and cannot finish their education.

The new rules will approximately decrease the debt forgiveness by $500 million a year compared to 2016. Currently, DeVos has not approved or denied any of the 180,000 pending claims for over a year. Many of the claims relate to false promises by for-profit schools about their graduates’ career prospects. The Obama administration granted full loan discharges to borrower defense claims that it approved, but DeVos discharges only a portion of the debt owned by some Corinthian students. Moreover, for two years, DeVos has “refused to follow existing law and cancel the loans for students, leaving them in debt they cannot get away from,” according to Eileen Connor, legal director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending.

This year, consumer advocates took DeVos to court for the violations. A federal judge held DeVos in contempt of court for violating an order to stop collecting loans from thousands of former for-profit college students and fined the Education Department $100,000. US Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim issued the ruling on Oct. 24, 2019 in San Francisco. Kim previously ordered DeVos to stop collecting federal loans from former Corinthian Colleges students who applied for loan forgiveness in 2015. However, DeVos continued to grant loan forgiveness to only Corinthian students. The federal judge indirectly threatened DeVos with jail for her ongoing failure, or refusal, to comply with the court orders in the student loan case. Kim said that what DeVos is doing is “at best gross negligence, at worst it’s an intentional flouting of [her] order.”

The significant reduction in debt relief is the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at for-profit colleges and universities.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, called the latest changes in rules “another Trump-DeVos giveaway to their for-profit college cronies at the expense of defrauded student borrowers.” The overhaul of rules is also a response to conservative criticism that the current federal standards, set by the Obama administration, are too lenient and expensive for taxpayers. DeVos says that the new rules will “hold colleges and universities accountable and treat students and taxpayers fairly.” The entire regulation is projected to save taxpayers more than $11 billion over the next decade.

The federal government is the primary financier for Americans borrowing to attend college. It has made or backed more than 1.4 trillion in student loans to nearly 43 million people. With the new rules, many would not be able to receive help in their financial situation, but taxpayers will face some relief.