Schooled Reporting on education

Refocusing on religious discrimination

Education | New nominee to head the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has a long history defending faith groups
by Leigh Jones
Posted 11/01/17, 02:41 pm

Christians could soon have a friend in the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, a welcome change from the previous administration. Last week, President Donald Trump nominated Kenneth Marcus to head the office, a post he held during the George W. Bush administration.

Under President Barack Obama, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) pushed pro-LGBT policies, most notably expanding the definition of “sex” in Title IX protections to include gender identity. Under that guidance, schools receiving federal funds had to open traditionally single-sex facilities, like restrooms and locker rooms, to students of the opposite sex. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded that policy shortly after taking over the department.

If confirmed by the Senate, Marcus likely will pursue discrimination as zealously as his predecessor, but his focus will be on groups the Obama administration ignored.

Marcus currently serves as president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights under Law, a group that fights anti-Semitism. During his previous stint at the Education Department, Marcus made a point of highlighting the problem of religious discrimination, especially on college campuses. He focused then on discrimination against Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews post-9/11, but he also made a point of singling out discrimination against Christians.

“OCR has also recently investigated allegations of race and sex discrimination against white, male Christian students,” Marcus wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2004. “In one unfortunate incident, a white male undergraduate student was harassed by a professor for expressing conservative Christian views in a classroom discussion regarding homosexuality.”

Although claims of religious discrimination fall to the Justice Department to investigate, Marcus pledged to “aggressively prosecute harassment of religious students who are targeted on the basis of race or gender, as well as racial or gender harassment of students who are targeted on the basis of religion.”

In an interview with Politico earlier this year, Marcus said anti-Semitism got a boost from the alt-right after Trump’s election, but he also blamed anti-Israeli sentiment among liberal groups for the rise in discrimination against Jews. He especially noted the influence of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which attempts to force Israel to end its settlement policy, for rising anti-Semitism on college campuses.

“We certainly have seen an increase in hate and bias activities since the election,” he told Politico in February. But, he added, its “not just in the alt-right but also on the far left. ... Not just from Trump supporters but from Trump detractors.”

Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke Art Institute of Philadelphia

Putting limits on student loan forgiveness

Consumer advocacy groups are in an uproar over rumors about new Education Department rules that might leave some students with less loan forgiveness than they expected.

Under the Obama administration, all students who claim they were defrauded by now-shuttered for-profit colleges could apply to have their debt completely wiped out, a policy that already cost taxpayers more than $550 million. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put the brakes on that plan and announced she will unveil new rules for student loan forgiveness in the coming months.

Officials who leaked news of the new policy claim DeVos wants to evaluate average earnings of students in similar programs and schools to determine how much debt to forgive. In other words, just because some of the for-profit schools published fake employment and earnings data to lure students and then went bankrupt doesn’t mean students didn’t get some valuable instruction that eventually helped them land jobs. Under the Obama administration, any student who filed a fraud claim could have their debt expunged, regardless of their employment and earnings status.

Critics say DeVos and Trump, whose own now-defunct for-profit college faced fraud claims, are bowing to industry pressure to go easy on the schools. Shortly after his election to the presidency, Trump settled a lawsuit brought by former Trump University students for $25 million.

But the Obama-era “borrower defense to repayment” policy didn’t enjoy universal support in academia. Critics noted it didn’t distinguish between schools that set out to mislead students and those who ran afoul of federal rules because of differing state reporting requirements. It even made administrators at non-profit colleges nervous.

Still, changing the rules now could create a legal nightmare because so many students have already had their debt forgiven. The government could face a rash of lawsuits from any of the 65,000 students whose loan forgiveness claims are still pending, if they don’t get the same treatment as their former classmates. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Morgan Lee Associated Press/Photo by Morgan Lee A public hearing on state science standards in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 16

New Mexico’s science standards uproar

New Mexico education officials withdrew plans last week to adopt new science standards that omitted references to evolution and the Earth’s age and discussed climate change as temperature “fluctuations” instead of an ongoing warming trend.

The original proposal created an uproar among teachers unions, scientists, and parents who feared their students wouldn’t get the educational foundation they needed to do well in future scientific studies. Even the Discovery Institute, which advocates for intelligent design, criticized New Mexico’s approach: “We don’t want to cut out teaching about evolution, or to keep students from learning about the age of our planet. On the contrary, students should learn more about evolution and be fully informed about other relevant science.”

The new proposal for science standards restores references to evolution, the Earth’s age, and climate change. It also gives a nod to New Mexico’s heavy reliance on energy production, asking high school students to describe advantages and disadvantages of various industry technologies.

The resolution mostly made everyone happy, although the Discovery Institute’s Sarah Chaffee noted the state would have done better to stick with the old standards, which encouraged teachers to address the strengths and weakness of evolution and urged students to “analyze the data and observations” upon which the theory is based. —L.J.

Back on track in Biloxi

Educators in Biloxi, Miss., backtracked on their decision to pull the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird from a middle school reading list because some people complained its racially insensitive language made them uncomfortable. Teachers resumed lessons about Harper Lee’s classic book on Monday, on an optional basis. To participate in the discussions, student must get a signed permission slip from their parents. Students who don’t want to participate can read another book. The initial decision to scrap the book sparked widespread criticism, including from an 11th grade class from Tenafly, N.J., who urged the Biloxi school board to reverse its decision: “These derogatory and offensive words are powerful; they make people uncomfortable because they are painful to hear. However, it is critical that discrimination, offensive language, and racism are discussed in the classroom. We need a book like To Kill a Mockingbird to illustrate the extreme prejudice that existed in our countrys past and to help start a conversation about the issues that sadly still exist today.” —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on education for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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