Home > Uncategorized > University of Illinois Professor Links Sessions’ Rollback on Civil Rights with DeVos’s Choice Advocacy

University of Illinois Professor Links Sessions’ Rollback on Civil Rights with DeVos’s Choice Advocacy

January 22, 2018

In a blistering op ed piece in yesterday’s Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, Sundiata Cha-Jua, professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois, links Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rollback on civil rights legislation with Betsy DeVos’ advocacy for school choice. The result is a narrative about the racism inherent in the Trump administration that is chilling and hard to refute. Ms. Cha-Jua opens her essay with these paragraphs:

Though often ridiculed by his master, Emperor Trump, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions has meticulously moved to roll U.S. law, policy and social relations back toward the 19th century.

Given his success in nullifying Department of Justice consent decrees with municipal police departments and his commitment to reversing voting rights and immigration policies, and reviving racialized mass incarceration, it’s understandable that the attorney general has become the focus of anti-fascist social movements. However, Elizabeth “Betsy” Devos, the emperor’s education secretary, is pursuing a similar backward agenda. She has similarly nullified sensible and humane policies on campus sexual assault, civil rights protections for transgendered students, refused to enforce regulations on for-profit-colleges and has vigorously advocated for vouchers and charter schools.

Ms. Cha-Jua then describes how Ms. DeVos’ religious convictions inform her desire to offer publicly funded vouchers for children to attend religiously affiliated schools, and how the voucher schemes she supports were used to keep schools in the South segregated after Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of that practice. Ms. Cha-Jua offers evidence that the deregulation of charters in Ms. DeVos’ home state of Michigan, deregulation that was the direct result of Ms. DeVos’ financial support for State legislators who shared her views, resulted in diminished funding for public education, lower test scores for those enrolled in deregulated charters, and increased segregation. She concludes her argument in opposition to Ms. DeVos’ deregulation movement noting that the “no excuses” charters that Ms. DeVos and reformers advocate push children of color out, avoiding the consequences of high drop-out rates while reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline that results in the higher rates of incarceration of African American children.

Ms. Cha-Jua concludes her essay with these two paragraphs:

Given these results, it’s not surprising the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter network called for a moratorium on charter schools.

Though her sphere is more limited, given the importance of public education, Devos’ promotion of charter schools is as dangerous as Sessions’ assault on civil rights.

Here I disagree with Ms. Cha-Jua: I believe Betsy DeVos’ promotion of charter schools is more dangerous because it is reinforcing the “sort-and-select” template of public education that reinforces the racism and racial and economic segregation that exists in our culture today. Public schools can be an incubator for inclusive and open-mindedness that is essential for democracy, but only they provide an equal opportunity for all children and encourage divergent thinking. Charter schools, especially those based on religious convictions and those that do not accept all children, do the opposite. We have educated a generation that believes standardized test scores are a valid basis for identifying the best and brightest despite the evidence that standardized test scores are highly correlated with wealth and the education of one’s parents. Until we acknowledge that reality we will continue to eliminate opportunities for those born into poverty, many of whom could achieve the same degree of success as their more affluent cohorts IF they had the same opportunity.


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