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By taking policy positions that are out of step with public opinion, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos could trigger some bipartisan actions by Congress.

For many of us in Washington, the Obama years already seem like the distant past, shrouded in amber with a touch of bittersweet nostalgia. Even though the Trump administration has been in town for less than a year, the day-to-day business and horsetrading that embodies political and policy work have been transformed. The change has definitely been felt in the education space, with past priorities such as Common Core shifted to the back burner and formerly old/now new again ideas like vouchers taking all the heat.

Change is afoot within Congress as well. The education leadership in Congress spent most of the Obama years in reaction mode, chafing at the administration’s tactics and reach. (Who could forget Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., accusing the administration of turning the Department of Education into a “national school board”?)

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With Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, however, the tables have turned. Congressional leaders seem far more concerned about what DeVos won’t do. Although the department has traditionally played a strong role in monitoring states to ensure they are complying with federal laws regarding the civil rights of students, DeVos has made it clear that in her view the federal role is limited at best. She believes state leaders, local communities, and parents should lead the way in deciding what is best for their students. That raises serious concerns, especially among Democrats, many of whom are both annoyed and concerned that she has opted for such a passive stance in the face of discrimination.

While DeVos favors inaction on civil rights issues, she seems eager to pick a fight over the issue of school choice.

During the secretary’s confirmation hearing in January, Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., pressed DeVos about her unwillingness to intervene on behalf of students and families. Presented with a series of hypothetical scenarios in which students might be discriminated against, DeVos refused to acknowledge any situation in which she thought it would be appropriate for the department to take action. As Clark and other Congressional leaders noted at the time, this determination to keep the department out of cases involving the civil rights of students signals a dangerous shift.

Further, while DeVos favors inaction on civil rights issues, she seems eager to pick a fight over the issue of school choice. Repeatedly, she has stated that she believes choice increases equity by putting power into the hands of parents and families so they can escape the “mundane malaise” of traditional schools. President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal supported that vision by cutting $10.6 billion from education programs and reinvesting a chunk of that savings ($1.4 billion) into programs that promote and support school choice.

Unfortunately for DeVos and the president, Congress disagreed. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly in September to approve a spending bill that roundly rejected the administration’s proposed cuts. Instead, they voted unanimously to increase the department’s overall budget by $29 million.

It is important to stress that the vote was unanimous, meaning that the pushback was bipartisan. That’s a fairly unusual occurrence in D.C. these days. While the House response to the president’s budget was more politically predictable (slash the department’s budget by $2.3 billion and reject amendments seeking more support for after-school programs, magnet schools, and career and technical programs), the lack of enthusiasm within Congress to support DeVos on school choice suggests that a public education agenda is still alive and (somewhat) well in Washington.

Moving forward, Congress still has to pass a spending bill and tackle thorny issues like immigration and tax reform. But with a backlog of education bills waiting for reauthorization, members will have opportunities to demonstrate bipartisan leadership and vision in support of public education. It may be overly optimistic to expect any such thing, but let me suggest three important areas where Congress can and should exercise some much-needed leadership:

#1. Protect DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) 

Although immigration is among the most complicated and divisive issues of our time, the Dreamer issue is not. The administration’s decision to scrap DACA and turn out almost 800,000 law-abiding, hard-working young people was almost as shocking as the president’s subsequent dinner party with Democratic leaders, where he appeared to reverse himself and strike a deal in support of the Dreamers.

Since kicking out the Dreamers was both impractical and unpopular from the start, Trump had good reason to change his tune. In the days after the announcement to end DACA, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 73% of Americans want legislation protecting Dreamers from deportation, and 65% feel that Congress should make that a top priority. The president clearly got the message, prompting him to invite senators Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over for Chinese food, chocolate cake, and a friendly discussion about securing the Dreamers’ future.

Protecting the Dreamers should be a no-brainer for Republicans and Democrats.

With a public education system that is now majority minority, protecting the Dreamers should be a no-brainer for both Republicans and Democrats, and indeed many have already voiced their support. It’s worth noting, also, that if they do come together on this issue, it will send a strong signal to voters that their elected officials are willing to acknowledge that the demographics of the nation and its public schools have changed and that they need not treat this as a cause for alarm.

#2. Provide continued and rigorous oversight of for-profit colleges

With more and more Americans attending two- and four-year colleges, the need for oversight and accountability among for-profit providers has never been greater. The abusive and fraudulent practices of some for-profit providers became national news in 2012 when then-Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, led a series of hearings to investigate unethical practices within the for-profit college industry. Harkin and other Senate colleagues pulled back the curtain on the fast-growing industry, revealing fraud and abuses that affected thousands of students. As a result of these hearings, Congress developed laws to regulate these often-predatory businesses to better protect students from false and misleading promises. During the Obama years, numerous federal agencies used  their power to hold for-profit education providers accountable.

However, to head the Department of Education’s unit responsible for investigating fraud at for-profit colleges, DeVos thought it wise to pick Julian Schmoke, Jr., a former dean at DeVry University, one of the for-profit education providers that recently settled a series of abuse and fraud claims (coinciding with Schmoke’s time there). It’s an eyebrow-raising choice, given the apparent conflict of interest. And if Schmoke proves to be less than vigorous in investigating his own industry, then it will be up to Congress to provide strong oversight.

#3. Define the civic role of public education 

DeVos’ full-throated support for school choice, vouchers, and privatization has led many of her critics to revisit an essential question about the purposes of public schooling. Specifically, what is the civic role that a strong public education system plays in the U.S.? I suggest that Congress, despite its dysfunction, may be able to suggest an answer.

In past decades, the civic purposes of public education went without saying, and they were reflected often in both curricula and practice. Recent polling data, as well — including responses to the PDK poll — indicate there is still a strong belief among Americans that public education has a significant role to play in shaping and protecting the civic identity of our nation. Thus, when the Secretary of Education issues a clarion call to wake up the “flat Earthers” who still believe in the value of public education, one would expect our public representatives to fight back. If they can get past the usual bickering and petty politics, Congress may just be up to the task.

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Originally published in November 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 74-75. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.