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  February 7, 2017

Opponent of Public Schools Now Leads Federal Education Policy

Karen Dolan of the Institute for Policy Studies says Betsy Devos is likely to seek the rollback of protections for children in public schools and pursue pro-charter policy without adequate accountability standards
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DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.

The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday to accept the nomination of Betsy DeVos, as Secretary of Education. Vice President Mike Pence had to cast an historic tie-breaking vote because two Republicans senators voted against DeVos.

DeVos has turned out to be a particularly controversial nomination. She's been criticized for her demonstrated ... of public education policy and for being an all-out advocate for public school privatization measures.

Late Monday night Democrats tried to stop the nomination by holding an overnight session in which they presented their arguments against DeVos. Let's take a look.

MAN: Sometimes the most vulnerable of child needs a little help, not just from a loving teach or a loving parent, but that there is a government that stands behind her and says, "You matter."

MAN: This is a bit and important job. Can you support and be a champion for public education? That seems fundamental. Do you believe in equal accountability for everybody that gets federal dollars? That seems fundamental. Do you believe that kids with disabilities should be able to get this kind of education? That seems fundamental. And in those areas, Ms. DeVos, did not succeed.

DHARNA NOOR: Joining us to discuss the DeVos appointment is Karen Dolan. Karen is a Fellow and poverty expert at the Institute for Policy Studies. She's also the lead author of the IPS Report "The Poor Get Prison" and co-author of the IPS Report "Mothers at the Gate: How a Powerful Family Movement is Transforming the Juvenile Justice System". Thanks so much for joining me today, Karen.

KAREN DOLAN: Thank you so much for having me, Dharna.

DHARNA NOOR: So, as I mentioned Democratic senators tried fairly hard to stop the nomination by holding this all night session, but just how different were the Obama administration's educational policies from those that DeVos is advocating? That is under Obama, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, charter schools were expanded as well. And Duncan's not alone, many democrats have actually been in favor of school privatization. We just heard opposition to Betsy DeVos from Cory Booker, who is a member of the pro privatization group Democrats for Education Reform. So in light of all this, talk about what could change under DeVos and what's at risk?

KAREN DOLAN: Well, it's true that democrats also support some privatization of education processes and charter schools. And there are some charter schools in some areas of the country that have more accountability than others. Unfortunately, in Michigan and in Florida, where Betsy DeVos was most active, those are not such places. Charter schools there were a complete disaster, lacked accountability and children performed less well in those charter schools that Betsy DeVos funded, than the poor performing public schools that they were supposedly created to counteract.

And just generally charter schools, however well-constructed and with whatever kind of oversight or accountability they proposed to have, they do funnel much needed public funds, taxpayer money out of public schools and especially in areas where that's needed the most. And Betsy DeVos, as we know from her nomination hearings and from a lot of the protests and discussions and news about her, was not a proponent of public education, has never been involved in public education, has never had her children in public education. And probably, I would guess, has never even stepped inside of a public school building. This is a terrible harbinger for what is facing our children in a free democratic society where one of the cornerstones of such democratic society's re public education.

Now the difference with what we may see under a DeVos education department, I shudder to even say the word, it sounds like an oxymoron, is defunding of the public school system a lack of accountability, diverting public monies towards private education, towards parochial schools. She was unable to commit to equal accountability. She was unaware of protections for children with disabilities. Her money and money of her family has contributed to right-wing Christian organizations that are anti-LGBTQ. So this is in stark contrast to the Obama Department of Education. Under Arne Duncan, for instance, and the Office of Civil Rights with Catherine Loman there was a great deal of attention paid to over-disciplining, there was a great deal of attention paid to anti-discrimination. Under Obama and Arne Duncan they passed the historic directive to issue protections for gender identity under Title 9. There as a concerted effort and an effort that was successful in beginning to bring down the skyrocketing levels of suspensions and expulsions. There was multitude of efforts aimed at helping low-income children, African-American children, poor children, children that were immigrants and Latino children, disabled children and protecting LGBTQ children. So there were plenty of problems and the racial gap still persists in punishment, but a lot of progress was being made. And I am quite sure that under this new department, not only will those gains be rolled back, but the problems will be greatly exacerbated, that is my fear.

DHARNA NOOR: And just how much influence does the Secretary of Education wield with regard public schools? What might we expect her to be able to do without additional congressional authorization?

KAREN DOLAN: Well, that's a good question. I mean, it's not just a question of Congressional authorization and because the GOP does hold both chambers of Congress and they are very pro privatization and so-called school choice, school choice is nothing but a euphemism for school privatization, she can rely on their support for a lot of those plans that she has. However, the local school districts and states have a lot of control over how their school districts are run and many states can retain the protections that they have for students. But in particular, the Title 9 provision that Obama directed that gender identity be protected under Title 9, that's in legal limbo already. So that is something of particular concern, especially to LGBTQ activists and really to anybody who believes in the human rights of children that, that will not expand. So there are some states and some school districts that have chosen to abide by that directive and once they've given that it's hard to roll it back. But for all those many that didn't and that indeed protested it, that's not going to get expanded.

DHARNA NOOR: One of the issues that you focused on in your work is the relationship between public schooling and the prison system, the so-called schooled prison pipeline. So first, could you just explain to our viewers a bit about what you mean when you use this term?

KAREN DOLAN: Well, the school to prison pipeline is a term that's meant to indicate the ways in which, literally, from the time a child walks out of their door into a pre-school, if they are poor, if they are black, if they are Latino, and if they are disabled and later identified as LGBTQ, they're chances of being disciplined, suspended, expelled are between four and six times that of their white peers for the same behavioral offences. So we're even talking about pre-schoolers who don't have the right shoes. Or who scribble on a desk, even those infractions at the high school level it can be wearing distracting jewelry and what we see is that children who are black, brown, LGBTQ and disable are greatly targeted and over disciplined in school systems to the extent of very harsh suspensions and expulsions, which in turn, we also know, increases the chances of not finishing school and/or having contact with the juvenile justice system. So that almost ensures re-offending, if children have contact with the juvenile justice system while they're still youth. Their chances of re-offending are very, very high, up to 70% higher. So it's talked about as a pipeline because almost as soon as a child enters the school building, even as a pre-schooler, their chances are increased that they'll have contact with the criminal justice system.

DHARNA NOOR: And how will the policies that we expect from DeVos and the Republicans, more generally, impact the school to prison pipeline? How will the school to prison pipeline be effected by what's to come from this administration?

KAREN DOLAN: Right. So in addition to what I spoke about in terms of the protections and the anti-discrimination protections and the efforts to support children that are black and brown and disabled and LGBTQ that have been underway in the previous administration, in addition to those going away, as we see more and more children pushed into a charter school system, we're going to see an exacerbation of the disciplinary action. Children in Charter schools, black, brown, Latino, LGBTQ and children with disabilities at charter schools are over disciplined at rates even significantly higher than they are in public schools. So we like to call that or we're beginning to call that the charter school to prison pipeline. So I think, that's what we're going to see now, also, and the risks for children are far greater even under a system of charter schools which have a history of even greater discipline.

DHARNA NOOR: What is to happen in order to break the school to prison pipeline? What kinds of policies ought to be put in place with regard to public education?

KAREN DOLAN: Well, there's several things: one is to get cops out of school. To get the so-called SROs the Security Resources Officers out of school so the special resource officers out of schools. That is no way to handle children or disorderly conduct or talking back to the teacher or using a cell phone in class. There should be much greater attention paid to the social and emotional development of children. We have an increasingly traumatized student population and what we need is more attention to the traumatized environments in which many children now live and which the majority of school children now live. And there was an effort to go forward with programs that would pay attention to trauma for children and their social, emotional development. It remains to be seen if those programs will stay in place, the ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that was supposed to pay attention to some of these things. It was a bipartisan effort, is still an Act that is on the books. We'll see if that keeps going forward. We need to get the cops out of schools and we need to invest in our public school system. The charter school system doesn't have these protections in place and the charter school system doesn't have the same kind of accountability. And the pushout rates are very, very high. So we've got to move away from charter schools, not toward them. And we've got to treat children in the public schools in a way that really supports their social and emotional development.

DHARNA NOOR: Karen, thank you so much for joining us. And we hope to talk to you again soon as the fight for public education continues.

KAREN DOLAN: Thank you so much, Dharna.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.




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