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The federal role in defending students

Secretary Betsy DeVos stands with her transition team

Secretary Betsy DeVos stands with her transition team at the Department of Education last month. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Jim Watson

In her speech to the National Lieutenant Governors Association yesterday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos again reminded everyone why she’s the perfect ultra-conservative choice to head a federal agency: She doesn’t really believe in the federal government.

“Federalism isn’t an antiquated idea,” DeVos told the group. “Our founders reserved most powers, including education, for states to exercise because they knew all too well that a distant central government cannot adequately express the needs of the people.”

She said it even better to Axios, the news and media website, last month: “It would be fine with me to have worked myself out of a job.”

In some ways, DeVos is right. The Constitution does not allow much federal control of schools, one reason her post has only been a Cabinet position since 1979. Having Washington dictate rules to make schools in New York City and Nashua, New Hampshire, operate identically would be a disaster.

But because states and districts often fall short, one area of education in which the federal government must have a strong presence and the final word is civil rights. And thus far, DeVos seems aggressively unwilling to prioritize her department’s Office for Civil Rights and its mission. In her confirmation hearing, asked whether schools receiving federal funding should have to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she said, “I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.”

Asked in that interview with Axios whether the federal government has a role in education, she said, “I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kinds of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But DeVos said, “I can’t think of any now” when asked whether there are such problems today.

That’s scary. There are inescapable civil rights issues implicit in education policy, and local districts and states are often terrible at dealing with them. That’s why state after state, including New York, ends up with court orders telling it to stop underfunding the education of poor people and minorities and people with disabilities, court orders that are too often ignored. That’s why states end up with federal decrees telling them to reorganize funding and districts and access more fairly, and to make sure students with special needs get the resources they require. Dollars are too often driven in the direction desired by local taxpayers whose clout is defined by the wealth of their communities, a problem it falls to Washington to fix.

Often, states’ rights, federalism and local control are defenses to justify discrimination. Nowhere has this been more true than in education. And the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights doesn’t just fight this, it uncovers it by gathering and analyzing data from the nation’s public schools.

“A group of us are trying to draw attention to where the education department and Secretary DeVos are headed,” John B. King Jr., DeVos’ predecessor, said in an interview last week. He and Arne Duncan, who preceded King, and the two most recent heads of the Office for Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali and Catherine Lhamon, are speaking up to put a spotlight on the important work of the office and to push DeVos to prioritize it.

DeVos can’t destroy public schools, as critics fear, or start huge voucher programs to divert public money to private schools. That’s mostly beyond her role. But she can seriously diminish the Office for Civil Rights, and with it, the educations of a lot of vulnerable children.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.