What Would Appointing Betsy DeVos Mean for the Office for Civil Rights?

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A guide to Obama-era civil rights stances that will be at the mercy of the next Department of Education.

By Elena Gooray

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Donald Trump looks on as Betsy DeVos speaks on December 9th, 2016. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Today’s Senate confirmation hearing features Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education. Some worry that DeVos, a longtime charter schools supporter, will try to gut the public education system. But the concerns go beyond just public education: DeVos carries baggage when it comes to civil rights — an area that saw a big jump in oversight under the Obama administration.

If appointed, DeVos would inherit a Department of Education-led Office for Civil Rights that took on an unprecedented number of complaints in the last eight years. Beyond those individual cases, the OCR under Barack Obama also issued broad, high-profile guidelines for protecting certain educational rights—from the 2010 overview that suggested bullying created discriminatory learning environments, to last year’s insistence on equal access to job training for men and women.

Though DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman, has not voiced clear stances on each specific policy, the Trump team has previously taken aim at the OCR. In October, for example, a Trump representative called the organization “self-perpetuating absolute nonsense,” the Washington Post reported. Some OCR employees have reportedly expressed fears over the office’s future.

Many civil rights groups have outright rejected DeVos’ nomination. Ahead of today’s hearing, here are some of the recent, concrete positions hanging in the balance, and the nominee’s background on related issues.

On Race-Based Admissions

OCR: The office released guidelines last September affirming federal support for affirmative action. Citing the Supreme Court’s 2016Fisher v. University of Texas–Austin ruling (the second decision made on the case), the memo describes the policy as a tool for serving universities’ “compelling interest in ensuring student body diversity.”

Nominee Background:DeVos and her husband donated to the Center for Individual Rights in 2001,Inside Philanthropy reported. That same year, the Center challengedrace-based admissions policies at the University of Michigan. After the Supreme Court upheld the school’s use of race in admissions two years later, DeVos called the policy unfair but said it reflected “essentially good” motives “to create more opportunities for minority students,” Fox News reported.

On Transgender Rights

OCR: The office shared guidelines last May on recognizing transgender identity in schools. Under federal Title IX legislation, the memo stipulates, transgender students must be allowed to participate based on their gender identity — rather than what’s on their birth certificates — in restrooms and locker rooms, athletics, single-sex classes and schools, Greek life, housing and overnight accommodations, and “other sex-specific activities and rules.”

Nominee Background: DeVos has not publicly clarified her position on transgender students’ use of bathrooms or other gender-specific facilities. The DeVos family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Focus on the Family organization, which supports conversion therapy for gay people, Politicoreported.

On Disability Protections

OCR: The office sent a memo last July urging more protections and services for students diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), noting that ADHD was cited in about one in nine of the disability-related complaints the office received between 2011 and 2015.

Nominee Background: It is unclear what approach DeVos would take toward disability-related protections. DeVos is a major supporter of charter schools, where, a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found, students with disabilities tend to be underrepresented.

On Sexual Harassment and Assault

OCR: Under Obama, the office has released two general memos addressing sexual harassment and assault: one in 2010, classing sexual harassment as a Title IX violation; and one in 2011, extending those violations to sexual violence cases. (These guidelines provoked perhaps the most visible backlash of any recent OCR memo, prompting an open letter signed by 26 professors, mostly in law, alleging that the office was overreaching and threatening student rights to due process.)

Nominee Background: Between 2012 and 2013,DeVos donated $10,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has sought to overturn the Obama administration’s approach to sexual harassment and assault, Politicoreported.

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