When Betsy DeVos was initially nominated to serve as Secretary of Education, I sent my Tennessee senators multiple postcards begging them not to confirm her. Lamar Alexander was one of her strongest supporters (in or out of Tennessee), and his letters in response to my pleas consistently emphasized how qualified she is, how much she cares about students, and how wonderful she would be as Secretary of Education. As the news of DeVos’s decisions has piled up in my news feed, I finally reached a breaking point last week and penned a letter to him. What I had to say wouldn’t come close to fitting on a postcard. I’m finally sending it off today, and I thought I’d share with you all, too:
June 29, 2017
Although I have grave concerns about the healthcare bill recently proposed by Senate Republicans, today I’m writing today to detail the many terrible decisions the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made since assuming office—with, it’s worth pointing out, your vocal, enthusiastic, unqualified support. It seems like I hear almost daily about another decision she has made to weaken our education system, and I want to know specifically whether she still has your support.
Below are just a few reasons that I’m horrified, angered, and deeply concerned about Secretary DeVos’s tenure, albeit brief, at the Department of Education:
- After taking a brave stance to protect transgender children in schools by allowing them to use the bathroom of their identified gender, she caved to pressure from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and backtracked, putting lives of our MOST vulnerable students in jeopardy. This happened after she said, in February, “I will not be deterred in my mission of helping kids in this country.” Except, it appears, when political pressure from her allies is too fierce. So much for having a strong spine, eh?
- Her misstatements regarding Historically Black Colleges & Universities on February 27 was, at best, tone-deaf with respect to the reason our country created HBCUs to begin with. She said about HBCUs, “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and great quality…Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.” It’s not as though students who “chose” to go to HBCUs were doing so because they had viable other options to attend college.
- Her support of dismantling the public-service loan forgiveness program would directly impact my life in a massive and detrimental way. You see, Senator Alexander, I am one of the people who has dedicated her life to public service. I went to school and achieved a PhD while supporting myself through adjunct teaching (another matter altogether that I could go on for pages about). On average, I made about $1500 per semester-long class. Student loans were the only way I could afford to continue my education to attain my PhD. It took me nine years to finish my degree, all of which I was adjunct teaching, at times as many as TEN CLASSES PER SEMESTER. Think about that, sir. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones; I’ve obtained a full-time, tenure-track teaching job at Chattanooga State Community College, making me eligible for the public service loan forgiveness program after I complete my required years of service. My days are now dedicated to helping our most at-risk students achieve an associate’s degree and a better future for themselves. I know that you understand and value the importance of education for economic improvement. Shouldn’t those who get down in the trenches to enable that economic improvement be rewarded, too? (For context, I left a full-time job in 2005 at which I was making more money (not adjusted—in real dollars) than I now make 12 years later teaching with a PhD and 10+ years of teaching experience.)
- The proposed reductions to the Education Department’s budget are devastating. I don’t think I need to elaborate further on this.
- The recent announcement that the Education department will scale back on civil rights investigations is horrifying. At a time when violence against at-risk youth continues to plague public schools, we need leadership that will take every available action to protect students. Period.
- Another recent announcement from Ms. DeVos’s department plans to roll back protections for students against actions taken by for-profit colleges. This, again, is horrifying. Eight states and the District of Columbia have sued her department to keep the rules in place. Shouldn’t we be protecting our students against the sorts of fraud and broken promises that we saw with our president’s “Trump University” scheme, settled for millions of dollars prior to his taking office? Imagine if those sorts of for-profit “colleges” could fleece unsuspecting Americans without any punishment or recourse?
Senator Alexander, I know you have a genuine passion for education and its promise. Ms. DeVos is taking us backwards, not innovating in ways that improve student excellence and meet the promise of education in this country. We simply must do better.
Will you take a stronger oversight role on the Education department? Will you work to correct these errors? Please speak out, sir. We need your strong leadership here. If Secretary DeVos is indeed someone you know well, respect, and support, my hope is that your wisdom, insight, and direction may help stem the tide of these terribly dangerous moves on her part.
(Dr.) Liz Norell