Hundreds march with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday, Aug. 16 in the wake of violence in Charlottesville as white supremacists rallied days earlier in the city. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Michelle Asha Cooper is president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving low-income, minority and other underrepresented groups a pathway to a college degree. She wrote the following post as an open letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the wake of the events in Charlottesville.

The recent letter from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to agency staff illuminated her position on the tragic events in Charlottesville. Her words were forceful and offered suggestions for bridging divides within our communities. But moving forward, the secretary must undergird those words with real action and real solutions that advance the department’s mission of equal access and educational excellence for all students.

Michelle Asha Cooper is president of the Institute of Higher Education Policy (courtesy of IHEP.)

While the secretary serves to advance the Trump administration’s policy agenda, her primary responsibility is to the more than 70 million elementary, secondary and postsecondary students in America. The agency is charged with the essential job of overseeing and enforcing civil rights of our nation’s students. Yet many are preparing to begin another school year, feeling fearful, betrayed and endangered by the Trump administration and the divisive rhetoric from the president.

Educating our nation’s students is not a partisan issue. Neither is speaking out against white supremacy and its cancerous wounds. Education is a de facto civil right. Any rhetoric that divides, excludes or demeans others based on their race or creed threatens their civil rights and undermines the very basis of our democracy. And policies that curtail access and opportunity, hurt students and threaten to widen the gulf of opportunity between students of color and their classmates. Such actions taken under the secretary’s watch will leave an indelible blemish on her leadership.

The secretary’s letter to staff aptly disavows racists, bigots and white supremacists, but failed to acknowledge that President Trump’s words have energized and emboldened those whom she sought to condemn. Though DeVos and other Cabinet leaders have offered statements distancing their positions from those of Trump, more must be done. As a Cabinet member and trusted adviser to Trump, the secretary of education must implore him to speak words that unite, not divide. She must educate him about the need to protect vulnerable students and the benefits of diversity – a national attribute that enhances democracy and economic competitiveness.

For almost 25 years, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has conducted research and worked effectively with educational leaders and policymakers – on both sides of the aisle — to advance strategies and solutions to our nation’s most pressing education challenges. I urge the secretary to review decades of research, reflect on the historical injustices in our education system, and implement evidence-based strategies that advance educational excellence and opportunity—for all students, but especially for students of color who have been denied educational opportunities for far too long.

As schools and campuses prepare to welcome new and returning students this fall, now more than ever, strong leadership and moral rectitude are needed. The secretary is entrusted to enact and support policies that enable our nation’s students to learn, grow and thrive in tolerant, inclusive and welcoming environments.

However, in the last six months this administration has unleashed fear upon immigrant students; reversed civil rights protections; proposed cuts to the Pell Grant program; and raised questions about the validity of diversity policies. This must stop.

Secretary DeVos, I urge you to show leadership and courage by creating and uplifting policies that advance equity and opportunity. Step up, speak out and defend the students who enrich our nation’s schools with their diverse perspectives and experience, and continue to denounce people and actions that pose significant threats to our students.