DeVos Confirmed as Secretary of Education

Amidst massive controversy, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education. Although much of the pushback has centered around DeVos’ policies in primary and secondary education, her office also has oversight of issues that affect higher education, including enforcement of Title IX and federal loans to students. 

Title IX bars any discrimination on the basis of sex for educational institutions receiving federal funding. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), part of the Department of Education, released a “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) that interpreted Title IX as mandating certain steps that colleges must take when it comes to matters of sexual violence. In response, the Equity Grievance Policy (EGP) process began at Colgate in Fall 2012. 

“The EGP policy… covers faculty and staff as well as students; therefore, it required a different process than the Student Conduct Board that could hear cases involving employees as well as students,” Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity and Title IX coordinator Lyn Rugg said. “There were two changes made in response to the DCL: 1) to allow reporting parties to serve as complainants rather than witnesses so that they could be present for the entire hearing; and 2) to allow an equal right to appeal for both the reporting and

responding parties.”

Some of the other mandates of the letter included ensuring an investigation if there is a preponderance of evidence standard that an assault occurred, informing the school community of how to file a complaint and policies regarding confidential reporting. When DeVos was asked at her confirmation hearing if she would uphold the standards outlined in this letter, she refused to commit to doing so. However, according to Rugg, Colgate policies are unlikely to change. 

“It is difficult to comment on potential changes in OCR policy, as none have been announced,” Rugg said. “However, I do not expect that the standard of evidence would change at Colgate. Colgate employed the preponderance of evidence standard even prior to the 2011 DCL.”

Colgate also offers support to survivors of sexual assault through Haven, which opened in October. 

“It largely focuses on supporting campus survivors of sexual and relationship violence,” said senior Rachel Drucker, who was one of the co-leaders of the student movement that sparked the creation of Haven. 

DeVos has donated to institutions that support the SAFE Campus Act, which would mandate survivors of sexual assault to report to law enforcement, instead of going through the school. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which DeVos and her husband donated $10,000 to, has alleged that matters of sexual assault should be dealt with outside of schools in order to ensure a student’s right to due process. 

Drucker is concerned about this idea that survivors would be forced to go through only legal channels.

“I sometimes hear well-intentioned individuals say that campus sexual assault should be handled by the police, rather than an institutional policy,” Drucker said. “This ignores the deeply embedded problem of police brutality in our country, which can make reporting assault to the police unsafe and re-traumatizing, particularly for students of color and trans women.” 

However, mandatory reporting to law enforcement contradicts New York State Law, Article 129-B, or the “Enough is Enough” Law. 

“The ‘Enough is Enough’ law states clearly that complainants have the right to choose whether or not to report to law enforcement,” Rugg said. “Colgate complies and will continue to comply with NYS law.”

DeVos will also oversee the federal government’s student loan program, but she has yet to give extensive comments on how or if she will make changes to the current system. Students on financial aid at Colgate depend on money coming from either Colgate or federal loans and grants. According to Senior Associate Dean and Director of Financial Aid Gina Soliz, around 15 percent of Colgate students receive federal grants. 

According to Soliz, changes could potentially come after an evaluation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. In 2007, this was created as a way to help people who take jobs in the public service that might have lower pay than the private sector. The program stipulated that after ten years, those in the program would receive loan forgiveness. 

“2017 in the fall is when that first batch of people who might have entered into public loan forgiveness… had to repay their loans for 10 years,” Soliz said. “That’s the first batch of people that might get some loan forgiveness and I was thinking anyway that no matter who is in office, it might be scrutinized at any time. Is the program doing what it intended to do, is it costing more or less than they had originally predicted, and so that’s one thing.”

Soliz also pointed to the progress that has been made in the financial aid sector. Last October, Congress authorized a new policy that allowed students to use already-filed tax information when applying for financial aid, so that when students apply for aid in January, instead of guessing what their next tax returns would be, they could use the previous year’s. 

“Congress did get something done in passing this legislation, and it’s been great for students,” Soliz said. “So I’m cautiously optimistic that our government will get things done, and I know that no matter what someone’s political party is, in the back of their mind, the legislation that they’re proposing is good for their constituents, good for their students.”

Colgate’s endowment and money dedicated to financial aid also provides a cushion. 

“We meet 100 percent demonstrated need,” Soliz said. “Imagine if all the federal programs went away – and I don’t expect that to happen, but we have a great endowment and great funding for financial aid, a real focus on doing that. I feel even if there’s a little bit of ripple and a little bit of change that we’re in a good position that students won’t be left behind at Colgate.”

With a lack of information on what DeVos will actually do with higher education, much of the controversy has surrounded her advocacy of school choice in primary and secondary education. One way that this functions is by giving parents vouchers to allow them to pick their child’s school.

“When DeVos talks about school choice, what she is really talking about is privatizing public education and subjecting it to market forces,” senior teacher certification student Jessie Nuthmann said. “Public education should serve all students equally, and the unbalanced funding and competition that school choice creates undermines any potential equity among schools and school.”

Junior educational studies and sociology major Emily Palermo also points out that public schools already have massive discrepancies in funding. 

“I think for school choice to be a true and fair decision, we have to look at the unequal distribution of funding that already exists in our public schools before looking at how voucher systems will fund ‘other options,’” Palermo said. 

DeVos has been a staunch advocate of charter schools. 

“Charter schools – publicly funded but privately operated schools – are a complicated issue,” Nuthmann said. “Some charter schools are doing amazing work educating students, which is great. On the whole though, they aren’t proven to educate students any better than public schools do, and they also aren’t held to the same accountability standards that public schools are, when it comes to educating students with disabilities, for example.”

Charter schools receive federal money, meaning that they are bound by the standards of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). 

“The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is a piece of federal legislation that governs how schools – public schools – should support, provide services to, students who have disability labels or disability diagnoses,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Ashley Taylor said. 

However, there has been evidence that charter schools are not serving students with disabilities and instead have been able to push them out of their schools. This is not a problem unique to charter schools, as public schools are also able to send students to private partners. 

“If [charter schools] can show that they can’t provide the services within the context of their school, then they can be released from some of the obligation for any particular student,” Taylor said. “It’s part of a larger problem, which is that schools don’t always have the will, but also always the support from the district to serve all students. It’s more of a question of what exactly is happening broadly as a pattern across charter schools that’s different from the pattern that’s happening across public schools. So are charters encouraging a more homogenous student body within them in a way that

public schools aren’t or can’t?”

DeVos’ approach to students with disabilities has been called into question after she stated that meeting the conditions of the IDEA should be left to states. When pushed on this failure to commit to enforcing a federal law, DeVos stated she may have “confused it.” 

“She is bound as the Secretary of Education to enforce the law,” Taylor said. “Unless there were changes to the federal legislation, which seems tremendously unlikely to me, that’s her job.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in 2016, decreased the power of the Secretary of Education in favor of leaving more decisions up to states. So, while the exact changes she plans on are hard to anticipate, future teachers such as Nuthmann have significant apprehensions. 

“I do anticipate less funding for public schools through voucher programs, increased funding for charter schools, and other related policies,” Nuthmann said. “For teachers like me, that means less resources to work with, more and larger classes, and insecurity when it comes to continued employment. My biggest concerns about DeVos is that she doesn’t seem to believe that public education is all that important to democracy. All my issues with her

really boil down to that fundamental idea.”