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The Special Olympics are safe, but what about other programs DeVos would cut?

Greg Nash

Many were shocked by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s recent plan to defund the Special Olympics. This is a well regarded, much loved program, so the outcry was appropriate and hardly unexpected. While it is important that this damaging cut be restored, where is the outrage over the cuts being proposed for other critical educational programs?

Overall, DeVos’s proposed education budget would trim $8.5 billion, or 12 percent of the education budget; many of those cuts are to programs that are shown to support students of color. The budget includes increased funding for strategies that are driven by ideology, rather than research.

{mosads}In this year’s education budget, DeVos and the Trump administration continued their ongoing assault against students of color with the decision to rescind Obama-era guidelines to reduce punitive discipline practices that disproportionately target students of color and those with disabilities and lower graduation rates, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Of the approximately 2.6 million students suspended from school every year, black boys are suspended at a rate three times higher than other boys, and black girls are six times as likely to be suspended than other girls, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Apparently DeVos blames the children for this disparity. During Congressional testimony, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) called out the “cherry-picked racist research” cited in DeVos’s budget, a single study that attempts to show that disparities in school discipline are not because of institutional racism or unconscious bias, but because black children are temperamentally different from white children, disruptive and just plain bad kids.

The New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee in New York is one of many community-based organizations that has pushed for real solutions to punitive discipline for students. Along with its partners in the Dignity in Schools Campaign, they have researched and advocated for the implementation of restorative practices in place of punitive discipline in New York schools because, unlike suspensions and expulsions, restorative practices have been shown to reduce student offenses by as much as 58 percent, reduce absenteeism and, in some cases, increase graduation rates.

Further, DeVos proposes cutting $1 million from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which is charged with ensuring that school districts do not act in ways that disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. DeVos has been antagonistic to the work of the OCR, limiting its ability to enforce the civil rights obligations of public schools.

Alongside this rollback of policies and cuts to programs that protect students of color and students with disabilities, such as the Promise Neighborhoods and after-school programs, the DeVos budget proposes a 12 percent jump in funding for charter schools — to $500 million, up from $330 million in 2016. Charter schools are a key component of DeVos’s ideologically driven strategy to turn public dollars over to for-profit school operators and religious schools.  

With her family’s longtime advocacy for charter schools in Michigan, DeVos made a name for herself in the pro-privatization community. Now, as secretary of the Department of Education, she has carried this view into federal policy. But the results from her Michigan experiment have been tragic for the state’s children. Before DeVos and her allies began their efforts to dismantle the public education system, the state’s schools performed reasonably well. Now Michigan’s schools are among the worst in the country, ranking in the bottom 10 states for educational outcomes. And not surprisingly, the worst effects are in low-wealth communities, those composed mostly of black and brown children.

Michigan’s charter schools have been proven to be rife with financial improprieties and frequent closures, even leaving families scrambling for a place for their children in the middle of the school year.  Michigan is not unique in this. Asleep at the Wheel, a recent study from the Network for Public Education, demonstrates up to $1 billion in fraud and waste in federal grants for the one in four charter schools that never opened, or opened only to shut down soon thereafter. Journey for Justice, a national alliance of community organizations, paints a disturbing picture of the role of charter school expansion in gentrification.

Betsy DeVos’s continual assertion that the Department of Education needs to look at students as individuals shows her total disregard for the structural obstacles confronting children of color, LGBTQ students, and those with disabilities or limited English skills. She may push her budget and her policies as “freedom” in education, but DeVos and the Trump administration have made it clear who gets to be free in their world and who does not.  

Lori Bezahler is CEO of The Edward W. Hazen Foundation, a private foundation committed to supporting organizing and leadership of young people and communities of color in dismantling structural inequity based on race and class. Follow her on Twitter @LoriBezahler.

Tags Betsy DeVos Betsy DeVos Charter schools in the United States Education Katherine Clark School-to-prison pipeline schools

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