Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP Photos

The new secretary of education has moved quickly to dismantle Obama-era reforms and stump for her own initiatives. What do kids in the classrooms think?

Harvard students made headlines in September for protesting Betsy DeVos’s speech on the university campus, unrolling signs declaring “PROTECT SURVIVORS’ RIGHTS” and “EDUCATIONAL JUSTICE IS RACIAL JUSTICE.” The demonstration, which included chanting crowds outside the venue and silent protesters inside the room where the U.S. Secretary of Education gave a speech on school choice, was just one example of a steady rise in student activism.

Over the past several months, high schoolers in Seattle staged a walk-out in support of DACA, hundreds of New York students marched from their classrooms to protest Donald Trump, and in September, 100 students in Kansas staged a sit-in to demand discipline for football players who mocked transgender classmates. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, there’s been an unprecedented rise in political engagement and student activism among college freshmen, and 1 in 10 high school seniors anticipates participating in protests while in college.

Students are more politically active than ever before, engaged in ways that go far beyond hashtags. So, who better to ask about education policy than the people who spend 30 hours a week immersed in it?

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary jumpstarted a string of student and faculty protests, and her actions since then have only stoked the outrage. DeVos rescinded Obama’s Title IX guidelines on sexual assault, and 18 states are suing the education secretary over student loan protections. For kids currently in school, these issues aren’t just the headline of the day but define life moving forward, and often, their opinions go unheard.

Merrit Jones, director of partnerships for Student Voice, a by-students-for-students nonprofit devoted to including student voices in education, questioned why, for all DeVos’s discussion of “choice,” student experiences weren’t a driving factor in policy. “If we’re going to give students choices, why aren’t their voices and experiences and information being added to that conversation?”

Across the country, young people are seeking more agency in the future of their country, and education is no exception. As DeVos rolls out plans that stand to alter the learning landscape, students are sounding off on their fears, hopes and what they want to see happen.

“Public schools are not a ‘dead end’”

DeVos is a longtime champion of school choice, which ostensibly allows families to select a school that caters to their child’s needs. However, critics charge her policies with diverting federal money away from underfunded public schools toward private and charter academies. DeVos’s emphasis on choice extends to religious schools, which, in a 2001 interview, she suggested should be eligible to receive taxpayer money through vouchers.

“Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom,” DeVos said at the time.

“Public schools are not a ‘dead end,’” Yasmine Hamdi, a 17-year-old high school senior, said. “They are a place where students can learn in a safe environment, make new friends and participate in clubs that garner their interest.” To remove public schools, she added, would hurt society as a whole.

Zach Sippy, a 17-year-old high school senior from Kentucky, says students who have been impacted by DeVos’s previous policy positions, like those in Michigan, are wary of her promises on the benefits of school choice. But he rejects the idea that the charter vs. public school debate weighs heavily on the minds of young people at all.

“What they care most about is having the best education that prepares them to be active members of the workforce, communities and society,” Sippy said. “It is imperative for our leaders, like Secretary DeVos, to be in touch with the needs of America’s students and teachers. Her lack of experience in this field is detrimental to this goal.”

Victims of sexual violence and their supporters gather to protest before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Student Debt & Lending Changes

DeVos’s lack of experience also unnerves 19-year-old Marie Fayssoux, a sophomore at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

I’m very worried how DeVos’s policies will affect my ability to afford college. I am very dependent on the financial aid my school gives to me, as well as partially on loans that, at least at this point, are manageable,” she explained. “I fear that DeVos may find a way to funnel money away from my university due to the stances a majority of our students take on social and political issues.”

If that were to happen, Fayssoux said, it would not only jeopardize the quality of education but also  narrow the scope of people able to attend. “It would no longer be a place full of diverse people and ideas. I wish DeVos realized that it’s not only the rich and already well-off that deserve an education.”

DeVos has targeted Obama-era regulations, including freezing a rule referred to as “borrower defense to repayment” that forgave student debt related to for-profit schools found guilty of fraud. When predatory, for-profit schools close, students are left with loans to pay off and no degree to show for it.  

The Trump White House also proposed an end to the federal student loan forgiveness program aimed at nonprofit and public sector workers, and withdrew an Obama-era policy that obligated the Department of Education to look into the conduct of loan servicing companies before giving them contracts, effectively reversing protections for those in default on their student loans.  

Anne Rhys, a 17-year-old high school senior from Owensboro, Kentucky, has been considering the repercussions of DeVos’s student loan positions as she fills out college applications.

“Betsy DeVos has publicly announced that she has no personal experience with student loans and says she would have to review the department’s policies,” Rhys said. “This is unsettling to me as a high school senior, having someone setting education policy who does not have the experience and does not comprehend the struggle middle and lower class families have of paying for college tuition, especially with families that have multiple students.”  

The United States has more student debt than the rest of the world combined, and it isn’t going away. DeVos’s habit of siding with banks and lending companies over students isn’t doing much to increase kids’ faith that college can be for everyone.

“For the students who are going to school to create a better life for themselves or to raise a child while earning a degree at the same time, it makes it much harder for them to do so without proper leadership and protection,” Rhys said.

Civil Rights Protections Weakened

DeVos is also scaling back investigations into complaints of discrimination, so reviews that uncover systemic issues or mishandling of sexual abuse cases will no longer be required. She recently rescinded guidelines that pushed universities to investigate sexual assault on campus, leaving students and experts wondering whether DeVos was offering more benefit of the doubt to the accused than to victims. She also refused to commit to protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination, suggesting it wasn’t the Education Department’s job to defend them.

A 17-year-old high school junior, who asked to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to face potential questions on his sexuality from classmates, said that knowing DeVos is against LGBTQ students casts a shadow over his school day.

“I’m waiting for something overtly against LGBTQ students or students of color to drop,” he said. As a gay African American, DeVos’s pro-Christian-schools stances left him petrified about safety and equality.

“I’m lucky to go to a public school that’s really accepting, but I wonder if that would change if she made it okay for schools to discriminate against students,” he added. “People think we aren’t paying attention. It’s on my mind every day and most people talking about students don’t realize how personal this is.”

Jones, of non-profit Student Voice, said, “I’ve talked to students who have been verbally assaulted by teachers who feel differently than them politically. I talked to young people who couldn’t come to school because they were really upset. I talked to people who were really excited about the outcome [of the election], but felt their voices were being silenced.”

With teenagers running for school boards and students pushing for more say in policy, students are making their voices heard. The future of education requires the empowerment of students and them internalizing the notion that they have the ability to influence change in their community,” Sippy said.

DeVos has said that “the status quo in education is not acceptable,” and on this students agree. An education system that leaves those currently enrolled out of its dialogue cannot be the future of education in America. 

Jones is hopeful about the rise of student voice: “When there’s not someone who you feel represents you or is a role model or something to be admired, I’ve seen young people step up and try to fill that role.”