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Fears for schools, rights under Trump

Recent administration acts seem to defy ethics

By Jule Pattison-Gordon

President Donald Trump administration’s recent moves left many concerned for the future of public education and doubting the administration’s commitment to protecting civil rights of people of color and immigrants, upholding the Constitution and reining in corporate influence over public policy.

Betsy DeVos

In a historic first, Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 7 exercised his tie-breaking powers in order to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Two Republicans in the Senate broke party lines to join all Democrats and Independents in opposing her confirmation.

DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist and businesswoman, has no prior experience in elected office. She is known in part for staunch support of programs in which families use taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition and for her criticism of the public school system. Vouchers and other policies aimed at privatizing public education are widely seen as contributors to the poor performance of some Michigan public school districts.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern expressed concern that DeVos condemns public schools but lacks experience to support this view. She has never taught in or attended a public school. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that DeVos’ lack of familiarity with the full spectrum of education offerings hampers her ability to identify and resolve problems, according to the New York Times.

DeVos’ family’s extensive financial investments, including in education industries, prompted conflict of interest questions, as did her family’s hefty donations to politicians. According to the Center for American Progress, her family donated an overall sum of approximately $1 million to 20 of the senators who voted on her confirmation.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said charter schools cannot be successful without accountability measures and cited DeVos’ opposition to a bipartisan bill aimed at expanding oversight over Michigan charter schools. In a speech, he called DeVos “one of the most dangerous nominees in President Trump’s cabinet.”

Locally, Tito Jackson, chair of the Boston City Councils’ Committee on Education, told the Banner that DeVos is “categorically unqualified” and “puts the future of public education in the United States at risk.”

Jeff Sessions

While Trump’s cabinet picks all have been controversial, his selection of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, who won confirmation in yet another partisan vote, garnered publicity for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The senator was silenced on the House floor by Republican Senate President Mitch McConnell during debate.

Warren’s offense: reading a 1986 letter from the late Coretta Scott King urging that Sessions be denied a judgeship.

Warren went on to read the letter outside the Senate chamber. The speech went viral, as did McConnell’s explanation of his use of the rarely-invoked Rule 19, which proscribes Senators from impugning each other: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

McConnell’s phrasing became an almost-instant internet meme and a rallying cry for Democratic activists.

“They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth,” Warren later told CNN’s Don Lemon.

Travel ban

In one of the more stinging setbacks for the new president, a federal appeals court refused to reinstate his administration’s travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

During the appeals case, which concluded on Feb. 9, U.S. Justice Department Attorney August Flentje argued that the courts should not question the president’s judgment and actions on national security issues, and that such judgments are “unreviewable.”

Flentje said that Trump had the power to enact the ban based on his assessment that immigration from those nations would harm the U.S.’s interests, but he was unable to present evidence connecting any of the seven countries with terrorism. On the other side, Washington state’s solicitor general argued that the travel ban was designed to enact religious discrimination.

Ultimately, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Trump’s bid to revive the ban and asserted that the executive branch is not immune to the Constitution, which requires legal process before denial of rights.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly and explicitly rejected the notion that the political branches have unreviewable authority over immigration or are not subject to the Constitution when policymaking in that context,” the court opined, and said that Trump’s argument of unreviewablility “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

Locally, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey applauded the ruling, stating that, “The Ninth Circuit upheld the principle that no president is more powerful than our Constitution.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Last week, federal immigration officials cracked down on undocumented immigrants, with raids in at least six states that targeted alike those with and without criminal records.

Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, one of the largest unions representing immigrant workers in the nation, decried the move as harmful and ineffective.

“We condemn these counterproductive actions, which disrupt lives, tear apart families and wrongly punish hard-working people, while forcing all immigrants — documented or not — to live in constant fear. Instead of these harsh tactics, the government should focus on fixing our broken immigration system,” she said. “We must bring our immigration system into line with our economic interests and humanitarian values. We will continue to fight for common sense immigration reform to protect all workers, secure our borders and reunite families.”

In Boston last week, Jackson filed a hearing order on establishing a legal defense fund for providing lawyers to undocumented immigrants who have been detained or face deportation.

City Councilors also voted to reinstate a Special Committee on Civil Rights, which was discontinued last year. Council President Michelle Wu wrote in meeting minutes that the committee will take a more proactive focus than its predecessor, and that federal events had proven the need for a separate committee with this focus.

“It is more important than ever for cities to lead in protecting civil rights and fighting discrimination, especially given the recent federal Executive Orders banning refugees, threatening sanctuary cities and barring nationals from seven Muslim countries from entering the U.S.,” Wu wrote.

“Buy Ivanka’s stuff”

Concerns over Trump’s potential conflicts of interest were inflamed when a statement from Nordstrom that it would discontinue carrying Ivanka Trump products was answered with a Twitter rebuke from the president. Then presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, during a televised interview at the White House, advised Americans to purchase Ivanka’s products.

“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff. I’m going to buy stuff today, ” Conway said. “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Several attorneys from both political leanings have decried what appeared to be the usurping of a federal government position to promote a private business.

The House Oversight Committee’s Republican chair and a top Democrat member jointly called for Conway’s conduct to be reviewed for ethics violations.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Conway has since been “counseled on that topic,” and that Trump had simply stood up for his daughter.

Nordstrom said it had dropped the line because of insufficient sales. Other retailers followed suit. The Burlington Coat Factory dropped Ivanka Trump products from its online store and TJ Maxx decreased the prominence of displays of such products.

As of Banner press time Tuesday, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics asked the White House to investigate Conway for apparent misuse of her position and consider disciplinary action against her.