In a tense interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos failed to provide insight on Michigan’s struggling public schools, refused to acknowledge racial disparities in school discipline practices, and downplayed the pervasiveness of campus rape throughout the country.
60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl asked DeVos about the secretary’s focus on school choice policies in her home state of Michigan, where public schools are struggling in large part because they are left with fewer funds when children opt for other schools. According to a report by Education Trust-Midwest, schools in Michigan have experienced major declines in third-grade reading levels. Fifty-six percent of students in the third grade did not pass the state assessment’s reading test in 2017. But DeVos couldn’t articulate whether public schools in Michigan have fared well under her policies. When Stahl pushed DeVos on the issue, she replied, “I don’t know — overall, I can’t say overall that they have gotten better.”
“The whole state is not doing well,” Stahl said. Toward the end of her questions on school choice, DeVos looked visibly uncomfortable, particularly when Stahl suggested DeVos should visit an underperforming public school. “Maybe I should, yes,” DeVos replied.
When Stahl asked DeVos about reports that the department is considering rolling back guidance for schools to avoid racial disproportionality in discipline, she replied, “We are studying that rule. We need to ensure all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment and all students means all students.”
Stahl offered a hypothetical example of a classroom disruption to illustrate the differences in the discipline of white students and Black students. When white students are disruptive, they are typically sent to the principal’s office, Stahl said, while school staff often call the police on Black students. Stahl’s example is supported by years of research and data on racially disproportionate school discipline, including Department of Education data that shows Black students were 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of police officers than white students, and are 3.6 times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. Research from Stanford University also found that teachers use harsher discipline on Black students when they misbehave a second time than they would for a white student.
DeVos’ response was, ” … all of these issues come down to individual kids.”
“Well, no it’s not,” Stahl said.
“It does come down to individual kids … I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning,” DeVos responded.
“Do you see this disproportion in discipline for the same infraction as institutional racism?” Stahl pressed.
DeVos answered, “We’re still studying it carefully and are committed to making sure more students have the opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environments.”
This isn’t the first time DeVos dodged questions about racial disproportionality in school discipline — she did the same thing during her confirmation process last year. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said, at the time, that he was concerned by her lack of commitment to continue requiring schools to submit civil rights data — a resource that could help address the systemic racism inherent within school discipline practices.
“I asked if she would maintain the requirement that schools submit civil rights data to the department … That’s not controversial … She would not commit to continuing to require that the data be submitted. That is absolutely stunning,” Murphy said in January 2017.
DeVos’ response echoed that of President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Office for Civil Rights, Kenneth Marcus, who also waffled on a question about student discipline and racial bias during a Senate hearing in December. “[M]y experience says that one needs to approach each complaint and compliance review with an open mind and a sense of fairness to find what out what the answers are. I have seen what appeared to be inexcusable disparities that were the result of paperwork errors. They just got the numbers wrong.”
Under Trump, OCR has discussed the possibility of focusing more on individual complaints rather than looking for systemic problems as the Obama-era OCR did. It dismissed a lot more cases as well, according to Politico. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights continues to say they are not required to handle cases relating to discrimination against transgender students, the Huffington Post reported. Since DeVos stepped into her role as education secretary, she made it clear that her department would likely not take the same approach as the Obama administration in addressing civil rights complaints. Her refusal to acknowledge racial discrimination in schools during her 60 Minutes interview has cemented that reputation.
Stahl also pressed DeVos on the department’s approach to complaints related to Title IX, a federal civil rights law that protects people from sex discrimination in education programs and activities. In September, DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance for schools, colleges, and universities that are investigating sexual assault cases. The department also introduced an interim guidance that replaced the suggested 60-day timeframe for prompt investigations with “no fixed time frame” and allowed colleges to decide to force survivors to “work things out” with the accused.
“Are you in any way, do you think, suggesting that the number of false accusations are as high as the number of actual rapes or assaults?” Stahl asked DeVos.
“Well one sexual assault is one too many. And one falsely accused individual is one too many,” DeVos said.
“But are they the same?” Stahl asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that is fair for everyone involved,” Devos responded.
DeVos’ response might make sense in a world without research on sexual assault and campus rape or on the number of false reports of sexual assault. But existing research shows that only between 2 to 10 percent of reports of sexual assault are false.
Students who are found responsible for sexual assault are expelled in only 30 percent of the cases reviewed by the Huffington Post in 2014 and in 47 percent of these cases, they were suspended.
That evidence hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from making sweeping generalizations about campus rape survivors. Candice Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for strategic operations and outreach at the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said in July that 90 percent of sexual assault cases “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”