Betsy DeVos is coming to Boston and she’s in high demand, not just from friendly quarters.
The US secretary of education and staunch school choice supporter is speaking at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on Thursday, part of a two-day conference on charter schools and vouchers.
But that’s hardly the only hot-button issue that policymakers and advocacy groups want DeVos to address while she’s in town.
Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have both issued DeVos invitations to spend time with them and students they say will be harmed by changes the education department is considering to the for-profit college industry and campus sexual assault policies.
The multiple invitations may be less an indication of DeVos’s popularity and more a sign of how polarizing a figure she and education department have become in recent months.
“All we’re asking is for a few minutes for her to hear the perspective of people who have been harmed by these schools,” said Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard. “Based on the actions she has taken, she doesn’t seem like she’s getting that perspective.”
The Harvard project has represented thousands of students who attended for-profits schools that authorities said made false promises and later shut down, leaving students with worthless degrees and mountains of college loan debt. Many of these students have applied to the US Department of Education for relief from their debt and are still waiting to hear back, Merrill said.
Earlier this year, DeVos decided to freeze an Obama-administration rule designed to protect students from predatory for-profit colleges, arguing that it had been rushed into implementation.
Meanwhile, the education department has hired several people who previously worked for the for-profit education industry to fill top-level positions.
Last Friday, DeVos further irked many advocate groups by suggesting that the Obama-era rules meant to protect consumers from predatory schools made it too easy for students to get money from taxpayers.
“While students should have protections from predatory practices, schools and taxpayers should also be treated fairly as well,” she said during a speech in Michigan, according to The Detroit News. “Under the previous rules, all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.”
Government-backed student loans benefited these for-profit schools, helping them make money for years, while students were left in the lurch, Merrill said.
“It was free money to the schools that returned nothing of value to the students,” she said.
DeVos would benefit from meeting with some of the student borrowers who were harmed by these for-profit schools, Merrill said.
Officials with the education department did not respond to requests for comment on Monday about whether DeVos would meet with student borrowers.
If DeVos opts to skip that meeting, she also has an invitation from Healey.
Healey has been an vocal critic of DeVos’ decision last week to rescind the Obama administration’s 2011 directive requiring colleges to aggressively investigate all sexual assault claims using a relatively low burden of proof. The federal education agency is developing a replacement policy and has told schools to evaluate sexual misconduct claims using the same standards of evidence they rely on for any other student infractions.
But opponents of the move argue that it could make it tougher to prove allegations of sexual assault at some universities.
Healey has accused DeVos of abandoning, “survivors of sexual assault on college campuses and all students looking to learn in a safe environment free from violence and discrimination.”
Whether DeVos will take up Healey’s invitation to meet with stakeholders about campus sexual assault was also unclear Monday.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.