The Secretary of Education and the American dream

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been making the rounds in Congress to answer questions about the president's federal budget when it comes to education spending.

While somewhere north of 90 percent of education spending comes from the state and local levels (depending on the state), federal dollars are targeted toward some important and key programs, such as serving students with disabilities, students from impoverished backgrounds, after-school programs in poor areas and teacher training.

For decades, the federal government has leveraged its funding (along with federal civil rights law) to ensure access to public schools for all students. While no one — at least no one I know — wishes greater federal involvement in education, the U.S. Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights have historically been fierce defenders of access to education for all students.

Without the federal government providing pressure and serving as a "backstop" against discrimination, we might well see all kinds of students being denied access to an education based on race, income, disability or sexual orientation.

DeVos has taken a beating from Congress about her weak-kneed willingness to serve as that "backstop." She has also been questioned repeatedly about the private school voucher program she is pushing in Trump's budget and whether or not the private schools taking federal funds would be required to accept all students.

Mostly Democratic representatives and senators have asked her repeatedly about religious schools that deny access to students who are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer) and then used this to extend the question to students who are minorities or who have disabilities.

In her House budget hearing, her response was that parents and schools should be free to choose as they wished — sidestepping the obvious issue of what would happen if a student were excluded from a school receiving federal funds that the student wished to attend. DeVos relied heavily on a "states' rights" argument before the House, saying that she and her department would defer to the states to make decisions in those instances. This response did not inspire confidence.

Between the House and Senate hearings, it was clear DeVos did some homework and improved her answers along this line of questioning. With the Senate, she came back with a stronger statement that federal discrimination laws would be enforced and flatly said "discrimination in any form is wrong."

However, when pressed, she continued to demur on the question of whether or not she would use her positional authority as Secretary of Education to intervene and require access for all students to schools of any kind receiving federal funds.

School choice is currently getting its moment in the sun and a great deal of policy attention, due largely to DeVos' appointment as Secretary and her record of advocacy in this area. In particular, what has been a political "third rail" about whether or not we should flow public education dollars to private schools in the form of vouchers is being openly discussed across the country and on the federal stage.

In my professional opinion, DeVos is blowing it, and big league. By refusing to make the clear and strong statement that any institution that receives public dollars shall really be open to any student, DeVos loses the moral high ground.

Without making the unambiguous proclamation that her and the Trump administration will not tolerate discrimination (in any form), DeVos' claims about how her school choice and privatization approach will raise performance and improve outcomes ring hollow. Because she isn't really talking about making these options available for all kids — only those that are the right "fit," or meet the school's profile.

In DeVos' view, school choice is good for kids — but mostly good for kids who are white, affluent, straight and nondisabled. That's not a good deal for our country.

We can expand school choice, and we should make damn sure those choices are really available for every child and that the field of competition is really level.

The promise of public education is to provide a shot at the American dream for any child. Secretary DeVos would do well by kids in this country to remember that.