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DeVos Comments On LGBT Rules; Her Husband's Political Contributions Questioned

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a dinner hosted by the Washington Policy Center in Bellevue, Wash.
Ted S. Warren
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a dinner hosted by the Washington Policy Center in Bellevue, Wash.

Hello! We're back this week with a roundup that focuses on the goings-on at 400 Maryland Ave. SW — that's the federal Department of Education, in case you didn't know.

DeVos comments on LGBT student protections in new profile

A long piece about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in Politico includes her public comment, for the first time, on the Justice Department's February decision to rescind Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students' rights.

It was reported back thenthat the secretary was privately a personal advocate of LGBT rights and that she had opposed the Justice Department's decision.

"I didn't feel the timing was appropriate," DeVos told Politico this month.

Dick DeVos donated to Michigan PACs

In the past, DeVos, her husband and his father have given many millions of dollars to political candidates. DeVos pledged during her confirmation hearings, "If I am confirmed, I will not be involved in any political contributions, and my husband will not be, either."

The Detroit News reported this week that her husband, Dick DeVos, this year contributed a total of $5,000 to two Michigan political action committees, which donated the money mostly to Republican campaigns. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter rebuking the secretary, saying she was "concerned that you, your husband and your extended family continue to utilize your vast wealth to influence and impose your agenda on a political system in which you already wield power as the secretary of education."

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Greg McNeilly, the chief operating officer of Dick DeVos' company, Windquest Group, reached out to NPR. "From our perspective, it's an issue that is not about Mrs. DeVos in her formal capacity as Secretary, rather as a private citizen since it involves her husband, Mr. DeVos," McNeilly told NPR via email. He also drew a distinction between giving money to the PACs and directly to candidates.

Office of Federal Student Aid to lose jobs

While many senior positions at the Education Department remain unfilled, The Washington Post reported last week that buyouts and early retirements are being offered specifically to shrink the Office of Federal Student Aid.

FSA is charged with administering more than $120 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds each year. The money helps 13 million students pay for college. The office has around 1,400 employees, the Post reported, and lost around 24 from December through mid-June.

In May, the top official in the division, an Obama appointee, suddenly resigned. It was reported at the time that he quit over plans underway to transfer responsibility for student aid programs to the Treasury Department.

He was replaced by the CEO of a private student loan company, A. Wayne Johnson.

Nearly 600 policy documents rolled back

The department announced last week it was rolling back about 600 policy documents, including 72 relating to special education, that it says are outdated or redundant. This doesn't change the letter of the law. But public schools rely on these regulations as guidance for providing special services, accommodations and instruction.

DeVos and the Trump administration have argued that too much regulation makes it harder for local school officials to decide what is best for children.

The immediate implications were unclear. A department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, told the blog Disability Scoop, "There are no policy implications to these rescissions."

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.