The Department of Education was established by the Department of Education Organization Act (Pub. L. 96-88) of October 17, 1979. The US Department of Education is the agency of the federal government that establishes policy for, administers and coordinates most federal assistance to education. It assists the president in executing his education policies for the nation and in implementing laws enacted by Congress. The Department’s mission is to serve America’s students—to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

President Trump last year issued an executive order directing the Office of Management and Budget to propose a reorganization of the federal government to “eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs.” With regard to education, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want to spend more than $1 billion on private school vouchers and other school choice plans. Their proposals also call for slashing the Education Department’s budget and devoting more resources to career training, at the expense of four-year colleges and universities.

The US Department of Education, under Secretary Betsy Devos has or is currently: 

  • Rescinding Obama-era guidance on how colleges should approach sexual assault on campus. Interim guidelines allow colleges to raise the burden of proof when assessing claims of sexual violence. Critics say the guidance is biased against the accused.

  • Formalized its policy on complaints from transgender students barred from restrooms that correspond with their gender identity: it won’t investigate or take action.

  • Proposed a two-year delay of an Obama-era rule that addresses disproportionate identification of students of color for special education—and disproportionate discipline of these students. 

  • Completely removed any mention of systemic investigations from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights instructions to investigators and is now telling investigators to ignore the broader context of a discrimination complaint, and has made it far easier to dismiss complaints. As of last August, the civil rights division had dismissed more than 1,500 complaints, 900 of them without an investigation. 

  • Announced that state efforts to regulate collection companies—many of which have been accused of unfair consumer practices—are inappropriate and that they “undermine” federal authority, despite objections from Republican attorneys general and consumer advocates who called it a move to protect debt collectors at the expense of student loan borrowers across the country

  • Reversed Obama-era rules that allow students at colleges with a history of fraudulent and deceptive practices to seek debt relief from the Education Department, and that allow the department to revoke federal funding from for-profit colleges. The department’s inspector general’s office found that the Trump administration had not approved a single application for loan relief, even though the department received more than 25,000 claims last year. In the wake of lawsuits from state attorneys general and consumer groups, the IG’s office demanded the department’s student aid division take action on loan forgiveness—officials subsequently announced they would approve 12,900 claims, but deny 8,600 others. 

  • Stopped sharing information with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and let the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools continue to act as an accreditor, even though it had certified notorious schools like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, which closed down in the wake of fraud investigations, leaving tens of thousands of students saddled with debt and useless degrees. The department also let for-profit colleges convert themselves to nonprofits to “skirt regulations.”

That’s some of the bad news. However, the latest federal budget, which showed that compromise and collaboration between the parties, if possible, included an ray of sunshine for education. The Omnibus Bill increased federal funding after almost a decade of stagnation. This includes more funding for K–12, a funded Stop School Violence Act, more money for black colleges and universities, Head Start, Pell Grants recipients, Impact Aid, STEM education and rural schools.

In a repudiation of Secretary DeVos, lawmakers blocked a new system that contracts out individual loan servicing tasks to different companies and her efforts to dismantle her agency’s central budget office. Also losing out were most of DeVos’s school choice proposals except that charter schools got a $58 million boost, bringing the total funding to $400 million.

The omnibus bill included an additional $8.5 million to the Education Department’s civil rights office, which DeVos has sought to downsize. Appropriators said the money should go toward staffing up the office, instead of the proposed cut of 46 positions. Appropriators also directed the department to maintain its 12 regional civil rights offices, defeating DeVos’s proposal to reduce the number to four.

After our small collective sigh of relief, we should note that many issues mentioned above still need our attention and advocacy efforts. Those who want to dismantle public education have made inroads and they are not giving up or going away.

Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair

Sources: AP, quartz.comvoanews.com, US news, bostonglobe.com, Politico, Washington Post, Mother Jones