Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

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  1. Agellius

     /  May 25, 2017

    Yeah. There are pluses and minuses to federal control, and whether or not you like it will depend on whether the Democrats or the Republicans are running things; and even then, your opinion about federal control may change depending on what the issue is (e.g. sanctuary cities and drug laws).

    I wonder though, how much difference it really makes whether the Dept of Education is “enforcing” the various anti-discrimination statutes. I don’t even know the extent to which it does so now. But if a school is doing something that is illegally discriminatory under federal law, wouldn’t redress be available through the court system regardless? It seems as though people are worried that if DeVos doesn’t enforce the anti-discrimination laws then nobody will. I would be surprised if she has that much power.

    • Dan

       /  May 25, 2017

      This is a pretty easy prediction, but I’d also expect there to be some consistent libertarian and anti-statist types who reject federal funding in principle. Even if there is a rush to grab this manna from Washington, eventually many schools will worry what will happen when they are deep in the federal trough and political winds reverse themselves. Especially at the college level, those who can afford some long-term thinking or those who are especially stubborn and committed to going it alone will continue to do so. Those who get hooked will be hauled out by those hooks later, I guarantee it.

      @Agellius — DeVos has a lot of indirect influence in her federal role and personal networks.

      The DoE and other federal agencies were aligning under Obama to interpret Title IX and other federal civil rights legislation pertinent to “sex” so that it includes gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as protected categories. Many states have explicitly done this in their own civil rights statutes, but it is a contested area and routinely violated.

      DeVos herself is hand-in-glove with the most established Christian education networks in North America. Many of them routinely, as a matter of religious principle, punish students for being pregnant, for wearing rainbows, for “gender bending,” for starting a GSA, etc. Then there are the hiring/firing issues. Conservative Christian schools have been very concerned this “freedom” will be taken away from them. Now many that have always used punitive and repressive responses to any perceived “deviance” will be emboldened. This cascades down all the way to the schoolyard bullies and those hotbeds of political correctness, anti-bullying programs. This was literally such a well documented reaction to the election by children, it hardly needs to be argued. I remember white grade school kids feeding off their parents’ expectation of a Romney win in 2012 who exultantly informed their black peers they’d soon have to leave town.

      “Conversion therapy” isn’t quite dead and might have a comeback in some of these backwaters too, even though many states have banned it. There’s a lot of state level legislation that can be attacked by embolded fundamentalists with supportive representatives at the state level.

      Without a doubt the people — especially the young people — who are always scapegoated as special sinners by fundamentalists will experience greater repression and greater disincentives to resort to the courts for relief. That’s not what most people do in those situations. Suing an institutional pillar, perceived moral authority, and large employer in your own community — especially if it is small — is no walk in the park. There’s a well-known script for how that will play out for kids and families.

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