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Fears for schools, rights under Trump

Recent administration acts seem to defy ethics

By Jule Pattison-Gordon | 2/15/2017, 10:28 a.m.

President Donald Trump administration’s recent moves left many concerned for the future of public education and doubting the administration’s commitment to protecting civil rights of people of color and immigrants, upholding the Constitution and reining in corporate influence over public policy.

Betsy DeVos

In a historic first, Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 7 exercised his tie-breaking powers in order to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Two Republicans in the Senate broke party lines to join all Democrats and Independents in opposing her confirmation.

DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist and businesswoman, has no prior experience in elected office. She is known in part for staunch support of programs in which families use taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition and for her criticism of the public school system. Vouchers and other policies aimed at privatizing public education are widely seen as contributors to the poor performance of some Michigan public school districts.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern expressed concern that DeVos condemns public schools but lacks experience to support this view. She has never taught in or attended a public school. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that DeVos’ lack of familiarity with the full spectrum of education offerings hampers her ability to identify and resolve problems, according to the New York Times.

DeVos’ family’s extensive financial investments, including in education industries, prompted conflict of interest questions, as did her family’s hefty donations to politicians. According to the Center for American Progress, her family donated an overall sum of approximately $1 million to 20 of the senators who voted on her confirmation.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said charter schools cannot be successful without accountability measures and cited DeVos’ opposition to a bipartisan bill aimed at expanding oversight over Michigan charter schools. In a speech, he called DeVos “one of the most dangerous nominees in President Trump’s cabinet.”

Locally, Tito Jackson, chair of the Boston City Councils’ Committee on Education, told the Banner that DeVos is “categorically unqualified” and “puts the future of public education in the United States at risk.”

Jeff Sessions

While Trump’s cabinet picks all have been controversial, his selection of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, who won confirmation in yet another partisan vote, garnered publicity for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The senator was silenced on the House floor by Republican Senate President Mitch McConnell during debate.

Warren’s offense: reading a 1986 letter from the late Coretta Scott King urging that Sessions be denied a judgeship.

Warren went on to read the letter outside the Senate chamber. The speech went viral, as did McConnell’s explanation of his use of the rarely-invoked Rule 19, which proscribes Senators from impugning each other: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

McConnell’s phrasing became an almost-instant internet meme and a rallying cry for Democratic activists.

“They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth,” Warren later told CNN’s Don Lemon.

Travel ban

In one of the more stinging setbacks for the new president, a federal appeals court refused to reinstate his administration’s travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim nations.