Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos left the department’s funding for low-income schools, protections for students with disabilities, and rights for survivors under Title IX in shambles. Biden pick Miguel Cardona’s lifelong career in education has prepared him to tackle these challenges.
When Miguel Cardona takes the reins of the nation’s educational ecosystem, one of his top priorities will be undoing the disastrous policies left in place by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Cardona served as Connecticut’s education commissioner and, before that, as a fourth-grade teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent in Meriden, Conn., the same school district he grew up in. If confirmed, he will replace a Republican mega-donor with zero public school experience who was appointed to the position by former President Donald Trump.
Unlike DeVos in her 2017 hearing, Cardona appeared to earn bipartisan support on his commitment to a range of issues during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday. He expressed his trust in science and public health experts to help guide school-reopening decisions. He also called for prioritizing COVID-19 vaccination for teachers and protecting the civil rights of transgender students.
Both his performance at his hearing and his equity-focused agenda are in stark contrast to his predecessor’s.
While Cardona has emphasized closing achievement gaps, increasing equity, and advocating for English language learners, DeVos focused on cutting education programs, funneling public school funding toward private entities, and weakening oversight of civil rights protections. Her policies directly harmed students and educational providers across the nation.
The incoming secretary of education will have to focus his attention on these three key areas to straighten up the mess DeVos left behind.
Public school funding has been a patchwork of unequal distribution for decades. Because almost half of the funding for public schools is provided through local and state taxes, there are wide gaps in resources between schools in wealthy and impoverished areas. According to Education Week, about 48% of a school’s budget comes from state resources such as income taxes, sales tax, and fees. Local property taxes fund 44%. The final 8% comes from federal sources. A report by nonprofit organization EdBuild found a $23 billion gulf between state and local funding in overwhelmingly white school districts and that of predominantly nonwhite school districts despite serving the same number of students.
According to the report, the huge funding disparity contributes to “leaving less-privileged children out” and continues to be exacerbated by state policies that have “failed to keep up with the growing wealth disparities across their communities, a trend that is almost inevitable given our current system, and further intensified by the issue of race.”
DeVos took this harrowing trend and made it worse, leaning into an anti-public-education agenda that took dollars from low-income students and funneled them to wealthy private schools. She backed a $5 billion tax plan for charter schools in 2019, and as the coronavirus pandemic raged in April 2020, she even shifted millions in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act emergency funds, intended to shore up high-poverty schools, to religious and private institutions. The monies were earmarked to provide tutoring and transportation for poor students attending private schools, but DeVos issued guidance directing districts to increase the amount spent on all private school students regardless of income.
DeVos “is using this international tragedy as an opportunity to try to expand vouchers or support the private school students, and it is at the direct expense of our public school students,” Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, told The Copper Courier. “[The funding] was intended to level the playing field, not increase the advantages that wealthy families already have.”
Arizona ranks dead last in the nation on school funding per student and overall investment in K–12 education, spawning a plethora of problems such as a critical teacher shortage and low student achievement. The state spends the least in the nation on each individual pupil and does not increase funding to account for student poverty.
According to the Education Law Center’s 2020 annual report, increasing the amount of funding per pupil and providing additional “opportunity weight” monies based on student poverty are crucial first steps in reforming the school finance system.
“High-poverty districts would finally be in a position to make critical investments in their teacher workforce, support staff and interventions for academically struggling students,” said Mary McKillip, an Education Law Center senior researcher and resource equity project lead, on the organization’s website.
Educators in other states have also criticized DeVos’s handling of funding earmarked to help schools impacted by the pandemic. Last year, Pennsylvania’s education secretary, Pedro Rivera, said that DeVos’ guidance would take 53% more money away “from most disadvantaged to more advantaged students,” punishing urban centers such as Philadelphia in favor of rural districts, which would see a 932% increase.
According to the Education Law Center report, Pennsylvania is eighth in the country for funding level per student but still ranks an F for funding distribution, or how much additional funds are distributed to high poverty school districts.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 guarantees the right to a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities and guarantees special education services.
Her first year in office, DeVos rescinded 72 IDEA guidelines for schools on how to best manage their obligations to students with disabilities. Citing them as “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective,” the Department of Education only alerted students and other stakeholders two weeks later in a newsletter.
One of the guidelines that got the ax confirmed that schools must educate preschool children in the “least restrictive environment (LRE),” a fundamental tenet of IDEA.
“I am concerned that the process by which the Department of Education made this announcement caused confusion and worry among families and advocates, particularly given Secretary DeVos’s troubling record of failing to recognize the rights of students who experience disabilities, and I will work with my colleagues to ensure that the rights of these students,” New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan told Washington Post.
DeVos didn’t stop there; she also blocked existing safeguards. The following March, she announced a two-year delay on enacting an Obama-era rule that requires states to identify school districts with “significant disproportionality” in special education. In other words, the regulation sought to create a national standard to ensure students of color are not overrepresented in special education.
As well, according to a ProPublica report, DeVos’ Department of Education killed investigations into over 1,200 civil rights complaints without any corrective action, and compared to Obama-era statistics the proportion of complaints that were substantiated regarding students with disabilities dropped from 45% to 34%.
Disabled students suffered from these decisions as well as the lack of federal oversight during DeVos’ time in office. A recent report from DOE’s Office of Special Education Programs, for example, found that the Virginia Department of Education failed to consistently provide oversight of special education services in its schools. That poor record was tied to lower graduation rates for students with disabilities and depressed scores on state assessments compared to non-disabled peers; when race was a factor, the numbers worsened.
In 2019, a review commission discovered a 34-point gap between the percentage of non-disabled students who passed math assessments versus students with disabilities; and just 35% of Black students with disabilities passed math standards compared to 51% of all other students with disabilities. The same year, only 27% of Black students passed their reading assessments.
“We have had for the last four years an administration in Washington that has been very laissez-faire when it comes to enforcing various education laws,” Virginia state Sen. Janet Howell told Virginia Mercury.
On May 6, DeVos made sweeping changes to the Title IX gender equity law, altering how any K-12 school or college that receives federal funding handles sexual assault and sexual harassment. The new rules require institutions to allow cross-examinations during student hearings, and narrow the criteria for what can be considered sexual assault. The move was roundly bashed by survivor advocates as well as education and legal experts as adding protections for the accused and creating more barriers to survivors reporting incidents.
The American Association of University Women’s 2010-11 report, Crossing the Line, found 48% of the students at US colleges and universities experienced some form of sexual harassment. It’s worse for younger students; at least one in four middle school students say they’ve experienced unwanted verbal or physical sexual harassment on school grounds.
“This applies in the K-12 context as well,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul told Wisconsin Public Radio. “And so you’d potentially be talking about, you know, a middle school student who comes forward having to be subject to cross-examination just to be able to have discipline as a result of a complaint that they’ve got.”
Wisconsin joined North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and 15 other states filed suit against the Department of Education on the grounds that the new rules were unconstitutional.
“Requiring complainants and witnesses to testify at a live hearing will likely reduce the number of individuals who submit formal reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as complainants may be reluctant to subject themselves or their friends to cross-examination at a hearing,” University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross said.
President Biden’s campaign website says that under Trump, DeVos “rolled back important protections for student survivors by rescinding the Obama-Biden Administration’s 2011 Title IX guidance. Any backstepping on Title IX is unacceptable. The Biden Administration will restore the Title IX guidance for colleges.”
Experts urge for more than a reset. The landscape has since changed, with an uptick in retaliatory lawsuits claiming defamation and federal appeals courts siding with the accused under DeVos regulations. Those decisions set precedents for colleges in their jurisdictions and schools will be subject to them, even if Cardona and the Biden administration stops enforcing the regulations.
“There will be schools that are strained by this back-and-forth,” said Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX. “To restore confidence in survivors turning to their schools, this administration is going to have to be very transparent about what students can expect … This is going to be a tough, uphill battle.”