This past week in a showdown in the Oval Office, new Education Secretary Betsy Devos became uncomfortable signing off on the removal of federal protections for transgender students, something which new Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pressing her on. Eventually, Devos was given the choice by Donald Trump to either get on board with the removal of the protections or resign. Clearly, Devos did not resign, and even put out a brief statement saying in effect that the Obama administration had overreached in getting the federal government involved in an issue which is best left to state and local government to decide.
This brief conflict, although in itself significant relative to the rights of transgender students, could well be a mere foreshadowing of a much deeper conflict soon to come between the Education Secretary and Attorney General; this deeper conflict having to do with the ability which poor minority students might have to take tuition credits they have received from federal or state governments, or from large private corporations who are given tax credits for providing such tuition grants, and then using them to enroll in better schools in wealthier school districts which exist outside the students’ own neighborhoods.
In her attempt to create more opportunity for students within this country’s education system, one of the issues which Devos certainly will be taking on is the issue of local control. That is the concept that a student must attend school in the district where his or her family lives and/or pays property taxes. And if Devos is advocating against local control in addition to seeking large amounts of money for tuition grants that would pay a student’s entire tuition at the school of his or her choice, the day is going to arrive when minority students living in poor neighborhoods are going to show up at the door of schools in wealthier, predominately white neighborhoods, hoping to be educated there.
Of course, partly due to racial prejudice, and also due to parents who live in wealthier neighborhoods being afraid of students coming from crime-infested, poorer neighborhoods to attend school with their own children, there are inevitably going to be schools which will attempt to somehow block the admission of the minority students by various indirect means, such as the use of invented quota requirements or admission exams. When this occurs, as has happened in the past, it will become the responsibility of the Department of Justice, under Attorney General Sessions, to protect the rights of those minority students from different neighborhoods.
Yet, unfortunately, with Jeff Sessions previous record of racial discrimination it seems entirely possible that he will invariably side with the wealthier, predominately white schools which are attempting to keep the minority students out. While at the same time Betsy Devos, despite certain baggage she might have carried to the job of education secretary, has shown that if nothing else she is committed to attempting to prove that we can provide a more fair system of education through privatization. This means that she would most likely not take well to the Justice Department standing in the schoolhouse door, so to speak, through certain nefarious indirect means which would keep those students from poorer neighborhoods from entering better schools in wealthier, predominately white neighborhoods.
All of this obviously harks back to an earlier time in this country’s history when the federal government had to become involved to insure that students could be admitted to the school of their choice; from Little Rock, Arkansas, when President Eisenhower called out the National Guard to insure that nine African-American students could be admitted to Little Rock High School over the objections of Governor Orval Faubus; or when the Kennedy administration called out 31,000 National Guardsman and other forces to insure that James Meredith could be admitted to the University of Mississippi. And although Betsy Devos is probably no Robert Kennedy, and hopefully Jeff Sessions is a cut above Orval Faubus, the situations bear an eerie similarity to each other in this strange time when so much about the current Trump administration harkens back to an earlier, darker time in our country’s history.
It might well be a while before this modern version of the 1970’s busing crisis comes to call, yet it seems as if it might well do so eventually. Ms. Devos entered as Secretary of Education after an embarrassing performance before the senate committee which questioned her, as well as after just squeaking by with one vote to spare in her confirmation, and with great ridicule from the left concerning her on social media. Yet occasionally the most unexpected people do great things in the pursuit of something larger during difficult periods in our history. Perhaps this will be one of those times.