As we begin a new decade, it’s time for the once-every-10-years Scrooge Award. It was a close contest for me. The candidates included Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General William Barr. Each has distinguished him or herself by violating his or her oath of office with cruelty or misdeeds. As the year ended, I declared a tie and chose DeVos and Barr.
DeVos’s job is to be a cheerleader for better public education and to help make the lives of students a little better. If you’ve paid attention to her three years in office, you’ll know that she is anything but a champion for education, based on an established record back at home of undermining public schools.
The wealthy DeVos family is well known in Michigan, where they played a major role in electing a number of candidates who champion charter schools over public schools. I have nothing against charter schools, which in many communities are a positive force. But Betsy DeVos has spent years promoting them at the expense of public schools. A 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest found that Michigan’s K-12 system, with some help from the DeVos family, was considered “one of the weakest in the country.”
The situation in Detroit is even worse. The trust found that approximately 79 percent of the state’s charter schools are in Detroit, and have “exacerbated white flight and affluent desertion, leaving the public schools more segregated than before.” In addition, since DeVos took office, she has concentrated on rolling back student loan protections and promoting forgiveness of for-profit colleges that have broken state consumer-protection laws and have made millions of dollars cheating students from struggling families.
In recent years, hundreds of for-profit colleges, including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, collapsed under accusations of widespread fraud. That left their students with huge debts and no degrees. Federal law allows borrowers to apply for loan forgiveness if they attended a school that misled them or broke state laws. Corinthian’s collapse alone led to more than 15,000 loan defaults totaling some $247 million. The Obama administration had approved debt elimination for about 32,000 students at Corinthian and two other schools. But in April 2017, in one of DeVos’s first acts as secretary of education, she stopped all relief applications that were pending.
There have been countless other actions taken under DeVos’s leadership that have harmed students by either suspending existing protections for those in debt or erecting new barriers to future relief. As for the nation’s public schools, which are also part of her portfolio, her record is less than stellar. She clearly prefers to visit private and charter schools.
One of the mandates of the Education Department is that it investigate fraud and abuse, especially in the case of for-profit colleges. The DeVos answer to this challenge was to drastically reduce the number of investigators needed to root out such illegality.
My second scrooge award goes to Attorney General Barr. At his January 2019 Senate confirmation hearing, Barr sounded like an experienced government attorney who was prepared to be the “people’s lawyer.” Apparently, no one looked carefully into his record or dug deeply enough into his opinions on a variety of issues.
Barr is known for a get-tough-on-crime mindset, but his positions conflict with much of the rest of society. Many states are closing prisons, but Barr wants bigger ones, and is against parole. He is a strong advocate of the death penalty, but he couples that with favoring a law that would prevent even innocent felons from challenging their sentences.
His recent conduct has been even more bizarre. In order to curry favor with President Trump, Barr has been traveling around the world, looking to find ways to help Trump prove there was corruption in Ukraine. He has teamed up with Rudy Giuliani, who’s doing the same thing in other countries. Attorneys general are sworn to fight crime in our country and protect our citizens. Barr is anything but that.
So, even though there are a few more Trumpsters who deserve the Scrooge Award, DeVos and Barr win it hands down.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.