Do you think students should graduate with enough scientific literacy to know that dinosaurs and humans didn't coexist, and that climate change is real? Should they be informed and compassionate enough to understand that slavery and the Trail of Tears were crimes against humanity that should never be repeated? If so, you’ll want to be familiar, if you aren’t already, with president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and longtime supporter of vouchers and ultra-Right wing Christian doctrine in publicly-funded schools. There's no shortage of reasons why Betsy DeVos is bad for public education; in addition to bankrolling pro-voucher candidates and organizations that basically oppose teaching facts about evolution, climate change, and history, she's absolutely committed to large-scale privatization of public schools.
But while she'd probably love to be able to wave a magic wand and privatize all of America’s schools, she can't (though the Republican-controlled Congress will likely do as much as it can to advance that cause). Though test-and-punish policies certainly helped accelerate the pace of privatization over the past three decades, the U.S. Department of Education itself has never had the power to transform the nation’s education system overnight, and it has somewhat less influence over what states and school districts can do since Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) back in 2015. Together with a hostile Congress, however, the department could facilitate an unprecedented transfer of Title I funds from schools and districts serving students in poverty, to private schools of dubious quality.
What's more, DeVos could also directly dismantle the education department’s supports for students of color, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, girls, and LGBT youth. One of the department’s most powerful and important functions has been its promotion of students’ civil and human rights through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). By enforcing laws that prohibit schools, districts, colleges, and other organizations receiving funding from the Department of Education from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender and sexual orientation, the OCR exists to protect the very people and policies most targeted by far-right culture warriors who believe America was greater when it didn't even attempt to respect the fundamental rights and dignity of people who aren't affluent, white, straight, typically-abled, cisgender males. That makes it an attractive target to bigots who believe the still-incomplete expansion of equal rights to everyone should be stopped.
With an ally like DeVos in charge of the Department, the Trump Administration could and would likely do all it could to defang civil rights enforcement and other means of helping oppressed students, including:
Abandoning support for students of color facing multiple forms of systemic discrimination at the hands of their schools and school districts
Undermining accommodations for students with disabilities, an idea the GOP has become increasingly comfortable voicing aloud
Reversing the progress girls and gender-divergent students have made in sports, as well as recent progress combating sexual assault on college campuses
Reversing the even more tenuous progress trans students have made in having their rights and identities respected at school.
Activists of all stripes need to continue to resist privatization nationwide. Those attacks at the state and local level certainly won't stop now that a GOP-controlled Congress has the ability to direct considerably more public money to voucher programs.
As we fight this nomination, and Trump Administration attacks on public schools, students, and communities more generally, we also need to keep an eye out for attempts to score bigoted political points at the expense of oppressed students’ civil and human rights.
Sabrina Joy Stevens is Midatlantic Regional Progressive Education Fellow, and a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, D.C.