School may be out for summer, but the Department of Education is still in session. This is bad news for students who will return to pursue their education with more debt and fewer opportunities. In the shadow of the Justice Department’s investigation of President Donald Trump, the Department of Education has managed extreme policy changes despite congressional deadlock, halting the progress of the Obama administration reforms and jeopardizing the education system as we know it.
While social media users and pundits around the globe rightfully decry threats to signature Obama-era accomplishments such as the administration’s commitment to clean energy and the Affordable Care Act, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her department have been quietly undoing much of his educational legacy.
In her recent move to rewrite policy that protects students from for-profit colleges, DeVos’ actions harm, rather than help, students. The Borrower Defense to Repaying, a policy originally expected to take effect July 1, reimbursed students who fell prey to schools that used “illegal or deceptive practices to encourage the students to borrow debt to attend the school.” Just last week, DeVos announced that the Department of Education will temporarily freeze this program of debt relief among students, in an effort to revise and improve the regulations.
However, this decision would only add to students’ debt burden. Furthermore, the Department of Education aims for a regulatory reset with The Gainful Employment — a rule that ensured that the 70 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients who graduated with a diploma and debt could pay back student loans in a timely fashion.
To receive federal aid, Obama’s Department of Education required colleges to ensure that the loan payments of the average student loan borrower did not surpass 20 percent of student discretionary income or 8 percent of their total earnings. Despite the imperfect nature of these Obama policies, student advocates widely lauded these efforts, and thus spoke out en masse to condemn these sudden policy changes.
DeVos justified the measures of the Trump Administration in a released memo: “Unfortunately, last year’s rulemaking effort missed an opportunity to get it right. The result is a muddled process that’s unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs.”
Yet her unsubstantiated words are a part of a greater façade unfolding in Washington, D.C.: the privatization of our education. With nearly 90 percent of U.S. students enrolled in public pre-K through 12th grade schools, Secretary DeVos strives to devote an inordinate amount of time, energy and money to private schools.
To double down on private schools, DeVos seeks to expand the use of school vouchers, which essentially provide a stipend for families to enroll their student in a private school. Much like housing policies that move a small number of poor families into rich neighborhoods to combat inequality, school vouchers strive to lift some students from public to private schools.
But instead of ensuring that every child receives equal opportunity to a quality education, the nature of this system perpetuates inequality. Take for example the state of Indiana, where then governor and now Vice President Mike Pence expanded the voucher program to the point where more than half of recipient students had no record of ever attending a public school, meaning that the state was subsidizing students to attend private school who were never planning to go the public route.
More suburban and affluent families were benefiting, rather than the worthier demographic of low-income families. Even worse, vouchers in large numbers steer more students away from
public schools, which lose millions in funding as they still must foot fixed costs such as heating and lighting of buildings, even as student enrollment decreases.
With the recently unveiled federal budget, opportunities for inequity continue to grow. On top of cutting 13 percent of the Department of Education’s funding ($9 billion) and gutting 20-plus education initiatives, such as after-school programs for low-income students, the Trump administration seeks to devote $1.4 billion to the school choice cause.
School choice, under this administration’s vision, expands charter schools without government oversight, reducing legal accountability and educational regulations in schools, potentially providing children from low-income areas with a lower quality education. Taxpayer money would go to charter schools, which will spend the funds at their own discretion. Even worse, the Department of Education has yet to promise that private schools that discriminate against students will be ineligible for funding.
This administration has demonstrated that it prioritizes school choice and privatized education over accessibility, affordability and equality for the majority of students.
Secretary DeVos is challenging more than policies — she’s challenging principles. In an age of talking out of both sides of one’s mouth, DeVos’ ideological consistency and passion may be refreshing to some, but her policies pose a major threat to American students.
At a time when our country must double down on investing in students at an early age and dismantling barriers to success, the Department of Education’s actions show an institutional failure to support students and their aspirations for equal education.