Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) recalled that ugly episode of state history Tuesday as he spoke out against Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary. Kaine and other Democrats opposed DeVos, but a Republican-led committee voted to advance the nomination to the Senate floor.
Explaining his vote, Kaine said DeVos’s suggestion that states should get to decide whether to enforce a federal civil rights law protecting students with disabilities — a suggestion she later retracted — is akin to the argument that officials in Virginia made when they argued against school integration.
In a Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, DeVos said she believed states should be able to decide whether to enforce the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, a 1975 law that guarantees students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate education. But the law is not optional.
DeVos back-tracked in the hearing, saying she had “confused” the law. She later offered assurances that she would protect students with disabilities. In a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), she wrote that she is “committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard-won rights of students with disabilities.”
But her performance in the hearing troubled disability advocates and senators on both sides of the aisle, who said her answer demonstrated a lack of understanding of federal law.
For Kaine, the notion that a state should get to decide whether to enforce a civil rights law was also unsettling.
“The fact that she did not understand the law, the fact that she said … states should be making those decisions, I find deeply troubling,” Kaine said before voting against DeVos.
Kaine drew a line connecting DeVos’s arguments about states’ rights and the one his own state made in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. DeVos voiced support for states’ rights on a range of topics, saying state should be allowed to decide whether guns are allowed on campus and whether families may obtain taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private education.
“I come from a state that understands what a states’ rights argument is because my state made states’ rights arguments when the Supreme Court said we should have equality for all students,” Kaine said. “The leaders in my state said, ‘No, that should be up to the states.’ And so we set up a whole realm of private schools that got taxpayer dollars so kids could flee integrated schools and avoid the law of the land.”
One of these private schools, which were known as “segregation academies,” was founded to serve white students in Prince Edward County. That county, west of Richmond in central Virginia, opted to keep its public schools closed for five years in the late 1950s and early 1960s rather than educate black students alongside white ones. Similar efforts sprung up across Virginia and the South to serve white students whose families were wary of integration.
Some civil rights advocates also fear that under the Trump administration the Education Department will be less active in enforcing civil rights law than it was during the Obama years.
Kaine, in his statement on DeVos, sought to make a broad case for enforcing civil rights. He said:
I don’t think we should be avoiding the laws of the land like the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act by using states rights arguments. It’s a federal civil rights law. It should be complied with in every corner of this country by public and private schools who received federal funds. For those reasons, I will oppose her nominations.