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Dear Betsy, Rethink Your Approach to Civil Rights

Betsy DeVos
News & Analysis

On April 24, People For the American Way and our civil rights allies called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Senators Alexander and Murray to protect all students from discrimination. The groups sent letters to the secretary and the leaders of the Senate education committee urging them to uphold core American values as they consider the future leadership of the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. With the alarming appointment of Candice Jackson as acting head, we are concerned that this office is headed in a dangerous new direction.

In writing to Secretary DeVos, our groups outlined a clear set of criteria that the next civil rights chief must meet in order to fill the department's core responsibility of ensuring equal access to education:

The choice of an individual to lead the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is one of the most significant decisions you and the president will make with regard to the civil rights of the nation’s students. We urge you to nominate an individual to serve as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights who has a track record of experience with a range of civil rights issues; has experience with and a commitment to remedying individual and systemic discrimination; is prepared to follow wherever the law and the facts lead; and believes that every student in elementary, secondary or postsecondary school has the right to learn and be treated with dignity without the burden of discrimination.

Then we urged Senators Alexander and Murray to fully vet any DeVos-Trump nominee for this critical role:

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has a unique responsibility to ensure that the Department of Education faithfully and effectively implements and enforces federal laws, protects the interests of the nation’s students, and ensures individuals nominated to serve in the department are qualified and prepared to fulfill their duties and committed to upholding federal law and the Constitution. In the service of that responsibility, we urge that you demand a thorough and public vetting of nominees to serve as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

These letters followed an earlier letter to the secretary meant to introduce her to our coalition and make clear what we expect from the Education Department:

OCR has a unique responsibility to enforce core nondiscrimination statutes in schools. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit discrimination in schools on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age. These laws were passed by Congress in response to the widespread denial of equal protection and equal opportunity by states, districts and schools. Although considerable progress has been made in the decades since these laws were passed, they continue to serve a vital function in the face of ongoing discrimination.

PFAW believes strongly that the Education Department and its Office for Civil Rights remain critical safeguards against discrimination in education, and we will work to ensure that Trump's dangerous team doesn't forget that.