US Education Secretary’s Policy Changes Had Mixed Results in 2018

22 December, 2018

United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos moved to make several policy changes affecting American higher education in 2018.

This included reversals in court, some criticism and also several new policies.

Rules for investigations into sexual attacks

DeVos's move in 2017 to withdraw guidance for colleges and universities given by the administration of former President Barack Obama has faced criticism. The guidance dealt with what colleges and universities should do about accusations of sexual assault.

In January 2018, three activist groups took legal action against the department. The groups said withdrawing the guidelines hurt protections guaranteed by the 1972 federal law known as Title IX.

Title IX bars discrimination based on sex at American colleges and universities, as well as at elementary and secondary schools. Schools that receive federal money are required to offer a clear way for students and employees to report sexual assault. They also must hold fair, open investigations.

In 2011, the Obama administration added guidance about how to deal with sexual violence accusations. Some rights groups praised the new rules at the time.

However, the Education Department withdrew the Obama administration rules in September 2017. It said they failed to provide fairness to both the accuser and the accused.

Skye Perryman is with Democracy Forward. Her group, the National Women's Law Center, and the National Center for Youth Law brought the action against the Department of Education. Perryman told VOA that DeVos's withdrawal of the 2011 guidelines would have a bad effect on those who might experience sexual violence.

"Individuals who've experienced...sexual violence, and sexual assault on campuses have been chilled in their ability to bring claims, because they do not believe that the system will protect them," she said.

Sonja Breda, 23, right, holds a sign saying
Sonja Breda, 23, right, holds a sign saying "Stop Betsy" as a group of survivors of sexual violence and their supporters gather to protest proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by DeVos on Sept. 7, 2017.

New rules released for public comment

In November, DeVos released new, proposed rules for investigating sexual wrongdoing at colleges and universities.

The new plan must go through a 60-day public comment process before it can be finalized. It includes some changes sought by some groups. For example, one of the new guidelines would give accused students the chance to ask their accusers questions.

In a statement, DeVos said, "We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process."

Under the proposed rules, schools would only be required to investigate accusations if the reported incidents happened on areas overseen by the schools. The earlier guidelines had required schools to investigate all accusations wherever they were reported to have taken place.

Some rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, have said on Twitter that the proposed rules are unfair to the accuser.

The period for comment on the new rules ends in January.

Student borrowing legal case

In early March, former Corinthian Colleges students made the claim that the Education Department unfairly used information about how much money they earn. The students said the agency used information from the Social Security Department to limit their student loan debt relief.

Corinthian Colleges was a for-profit higher education company that operated several schools across the U.S. and Canada. In 2015, the U.S. government found evidence it was illegally misinforming its students.

The Education Department has the ability to, in many cases, forgive student loan debt. Under former President Obama, the department paid $550 million to forgive student loans for tens of thousands of former Corinthian students.

The department then made rules designed to clarify how students can get debt relief. The rules were opposed by many for-profit colleges and universities.

The policy is known as borrower defense, and the changes were meant to go into effect in July 2017. But DeVos said the rule made forgiving loans too easy and was unfair to taxpayers. So she blocked it while attempting to create a new policy to replace it.

In September 2018, U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss decided that DeVos's delay was unlawful.

The search engine of the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard online database.
The search engine of the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard online database.

Changes without opposition

Some of DeVos's policy changes have not faced legal opposition.

In September, the Education Department removed national median data from its online tool that helps students decide which college or university to attend. A median number is one in a series of numbers that represents the middle value.

In 2013, the Obama administration launched the website, called College Scorecard. It is a database for important information on schools across the country, including yearly costs and average student debt.

The Education Department removed national median numbers from the website this year. It said that it was unfair to compare all schools with that measure. However, even some supporters of Secretary DeVos and her efforts found the change in the College Scorecard troubling.

"If you do not have anything to compare it to, you don't understand ... what's out there," said Daniel Elkins with the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States. "Then you have to compare multiple graphs, multiple charts, and try and figure out an average on your own," he added.

The Associated Press reports that DeVos announced one more major policy proposal for schools of all levels on Tuesday.

In 2014, the Obama administration urged schools not to suspend, remove or report students involved in bad behavior to police, except in extreme cases. That guidance came after research showed black students were more than three times as likely as white students to be suspended or removed.

However, a federal school safety commission has recommended changes to that policy in its final report. DeVos led the commission. She said that the federal government should not make one rule for all schools.

"The primary responsibility for the physical security of schools and the safety of their students naturally rests with states and local communities," DeVos said.

I'm ­Pete Musto.

And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Pete Musto adapted this story for Learning English using materials from VOA, the Associated Press and other online sources. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What other policy changes to you think Betsy DeVos will attempt next year? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

reversal(s) n. a change to an opposite state, condition, or decision

assaultn. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

chilledadj. to make someone less likely to do something especially through fear of penalty

perpetratev. to cause something that should be stopped, such as a mistaken idea or a bad situation, to continue

grievancen. a statement in which you say you are unhappy or not satisfied with something

oversee(n) – v. to watch and direct a place or group of people in order to be sure that things are done correctly

relief – n. the removal or reducing of something that is painful or unpleasant

graph(s) – n. a drawing that uses a series of dots and lines to show how much or how quickly something changes

chart(s) – n. information in the form of a table or diagram