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Brett Robertson

Author ››› Brett Robertson
  • Hate group Alliance Defending Freedom seeks to expand public funding for schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students

    ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON

    Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is an anti-LGBTQ hate group and legal powerhouse that has vigorously promoted policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students in schools and is leading the fight against transgender students’ equal access to restroom facilities. The group has also litigated private school voucher cases in at least five states in an effort to make it easier for religious schools, including those that discriminate against LGBTQ students, to receive public funding. A recent U.S. Supreme Court victory by ADF may make it easier for voucher programs to expand to more states.

  • DeVos continues carrying out ALEC’s agenda by dismantling for-profit college accountability

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON

    In a little-noticed action, on August 18, the Department of Education announced a rule change that will further loosen accountability of for-profit colleges. The move signals a continuation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ American Legislative Exchange Council-inspired agenda: favoring the interests of fraudulent for-profit colleges over victimized students, and dismantling higher education accountability structures.

    In 2010, the administration of then-President Barack Obama announced new rules designed to ensure that for-profit career preparatory colleges yielded appropriate levels of “gainful employment” for their graduates. According to The Washington Post, the rule “effectively would shut down for-profit programs that repeatedly fail to show, through certain measures, that graduates are earning enough to pay down the loans taken out to attend those programs.” After a series of court challenges, and a process of negotiated rulemaking, the final guidelines were set to be instituted on July 1, 2017. Even before the rules were implemented, evidence indicated that the pending gainful employment regulations were already having an impact, with many colleges proactively shutting down programs that might have been noncompliant.

    Back in 2010, right-wing media were up in arms over Obama’s efforts to make changes to gainful employment rules. For instance, Breitbart.com claimed it was a sign that “for-profit education” was “under assault” and that Obama was “intentionally targeting job-creating schools.” The Daily Caller asserted that the Department of Education couldn’t be trusted to fairly renegotiate these rules.

    On July 20, DeVos spoke before the annual convention of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill that shares model right-wing legislation with sympathetic state legislators. In her speech, she outlined a vision of higher education that includes changes to the gainful employment rule. DeVos characterized the Obama administration rewrite of the rule as “textbook overreach,” claiming it was part of an “administration-wide war on every type of organization they didn’t like.” Several for-profit colleges and trade groups are past or current members of ALEC, including the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (the trade association of for-profit schools), Bridgepoint Education, Corinthian Colleges, and Kaplan Higher Education.

    One month later, on August 18, the Department of Education published new revisions to the gainful employment rule, circumventing the normal rulemaking process. The revisions change the process by which colleges can appeal violations of the gainful employment rule, and according to Consumerist, they “appear to tip the appeals process in the college’s favor.” The new rules eliminate guidelines specifying what data would be considered representative of the student body. Now a college can appeal using any data it chooses, and “DeVos would determine what is reliable on her own.”

    The new rule will likely make it easier for for-profit colleges to successfully avoid being sanctioned under the gainful employment rules. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, responded to the change by stating, “It’s clear Secretary DeVos has no intention of enforcing rules that protect students and instead is once again prioritizing predatory corporations and for-profit colleges.”

    In addition to the gainful employment rule change, DeVos has made other rule changes that benefit for-profit colleges. She elected to delay implementation of the borrower’s defense provision, which would have provided debt relief to students who were defrauded by for-profit universities. As of July 26, she had failed to approve a single application from over 65,000 students who applied for relief from debt accrued while attending now-shuttered for-profit colleges.

    The New York Times questioned whether DeVos’ Department of Education could be impartial about for-profit colleges when she appointed Richard Eitel, who had worked for a company that runs the troubled for-profit college chain Ashford University, to a special adviser position. DeVos also hired Taylor Hansen, a for-profit college lobbyist, onto her transition team. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) questioned DeVos over Hansen’s many conflicts of interest, and he resigned the same day. In addition, there are a substantial number of Education Department staffers with ties to dark-money “education reform” echo chamber groups that seek less accountability for for-profit institutions.

  • Charlottesville reveals dangerous new phase in right-wing assault on college campuses

    ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON

    The white supremacist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA, which began on the campus of the University of Virginia, has raised concerns about similar activities happening at other colleges. Higher education media report college officials are growing concerned as white nationalist groups seek to hold similar events on more campuses throughout the U.S. These attempts represent an escalation of an ongoing right-wing assault on colleges.

  • Education Week reports on how DeVos' investment in "brain performance" company raises questions about her ethics and competence

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Despite “ethical questions,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to invest money in the scientifically dubious company Neurocore, according to Education Week.

    In an August 7 report, Education Week reported that DeVos has “significantly increased her family’s financial stake” in the “brain performance” company Neurocore, which “makes questionable claims” about its ability to treat a number of neurological conditions in children and adults.

    According to Education Week, there are several concerns surrounding DeVos’ increasing investment in Neurocore: “ethical questions” about potential conflicts of interest and “fresh worries from some researchers about DeVos’s commitment to rigorous scientific research.” From the August 7 report:

    Neurocore purports to treat patients by analyzing their brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing “neurofeedback sessions” through which they can train their brains to function better. The company often uses such treatments with both adults and children. It charges as much as $2,200 for a 30-session cycle.

    Overall, the evidence base for neurofeedback is weak, experts say.

    Still, Neurocore has claimed that its technology can “fix” problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has “proven and long-lasting” positive effects on children with autism. In January, Education Week reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics and leading researchers all said there was limited evidence to support such assertions.

    Now, the company is touting new research on its website. In a March press release, for example, Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison said a recently published study showed that Neurocore’s technology is a “viable treatment option for people dealing with anxiety or depression.”

    Three experts consulted by Education Week all questioned the legitimacy of such claims, citing serious flaws with the study’s design that prevented it from generating credible evidence.

    “They’re misleading, at best,” said Rebecca A. Maynard, a professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

    “It bothers me to see anyone misusing evidence and promoting things that mislead the public,” said Maynard, a former commissioner at the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the federal education department that DeVos now heads.

    [...]

    Raising her financial stake in Neurocore does not cross any clear ethical lines, and federal ethics officials signed off on the moves, said Larry Noble, the senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit staffed by election-law experts who promote public participation in democratic processes.

    But the transactions do raise some new ethical questions for DeVos and the public moving forward, Noble said.

    “I would want to watch very carefully if there is anything the department of education is doing that one could argue is going to help that company,” he said. “Also, if she had any inside information about anything that could have influenced the value of that stock, and she increased her holdings because of that, it would be a problem.”

  • Fox News uses misleading statistics to suggest that white students are underrepresented in college

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On August 1, The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice would be “investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” On August 2, during a discussion on affirmative action, Fox News used misleading statistics to suggest that white students enroll in college at lower rates than black and Hispanic students.

    During a segment discussing the Times’ report, America’s Newsroom co-host Shannon Bream presented two tables, first the table on the left, then the right, stating:



    OK, I want to put up some numbers here just so people have a little bit of data in front of them to look at the official population estimates [left table]. This is the overall U.S. population. You can see the statistics there and you have the white population at 61.3 percent, and then a breakdown between black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islanders. Now when you look at those [right table] the racial makeup of U.S. undergraduate students, it’s about 5 percent lower for white students and slightly higher for each of the other groups represented there.

    By presenting these charts together, Bream is comparing apples to oranges. The racial composition of the entire U.S. population (shown in the left table) is substantially different from the racial makeup of 18- to 24-year-olds, the predominant undergraduate college-age population (right table). The median age of the white population in the United States is 12 years older than the median age of minority groups, the Pew Research Center has recently reported.

    According to the Department of Education, the 18- to 24-year-old population in the United States in 2015 was estimated to be 55.7 percent white, 14.2 percent black, 22.3 percent Hispanic, and 4.5 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. While it is unclear what Education Department data Fox News was citing to describe the “racial makeup of U.S. undergraduates” in “Fall 2015,” the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the demographic breakdown of enrolled college students in 2015 was fairly closely aligned with the demographic makeup of all college-age students: 57.6 percent of students were white, 14.1 percent were black, 17.3 percent were Hispanic, and 6.8 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. According to these figures, whites were overrepresented in college by about 2 percent and Hispanics were underrepresented by 5 percent.

    Research has shown that affirmative action does not impact the overall rate at which racial minority students enroll in college; rather, it helps minority students get into more selective colleges. According to a Brookings Institution study of state affirmative-action policies, “Affirmative action bans primarily shift minority student enrollment from more selective to less selective public universities while not reducing total enrollment.”

  • Newspapers reveal human costs of Betsy DeVos abandoning defrauded students

    ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON

    The Trump administration has failed to provide relief to tens of thousands of students who were left with a “near-worthless degree” and large amounts of debt after attending fraudulent for-profit colleges that have since closed. Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education has delayed implementation of new rules that would better protect student borrowers, and several recent newspaper stories have captured the human cost of the lingering debt.

  • DeVos’ address to ALEC furthers alignment with corporate-driven education reform

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On July 20, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will address conservative legislators and corporate lobbyists at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Media outlets have spotlighted DeVos’ long-time support of right-wing corporate education reform proposals advocated by ALEC, including, among other things, so-called “school-choice” programs that weaken traditional public schools.

    ALEC is a corporate-funded “membership organization.” It connects right-wing state legislators across the country with model legislation that represents “the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism” and corresponds with corporate interests on a given policy issue. Almost one-quarter of all state legislators in the U.S. are part of the ALEC network, giving it unmatched influence in turning its model legislation into law. ALEC has promoted legislation on private school choice programs including voucher programs and scholarship tax credits. They have been a key part of the successful push to massively expand private school voucher policies across an increasing number of states over the past 10 years. Additionally, in line with its right-wing agenda, ALEC is also behind so-called “right to work” legislation that severely weakens unions -- including teachers unions.

    In reporting on her upcoming address, Education Week described DeVos and ALEC as “natural allies” because DeVos promotes education policies that are beneficial to the large corporations that make up ALEC’s membership. Education Week noted that “the current co-chair of the group’s education committee” is Tom Bolvin, “who works for K12 Inc., the for-profit education company that has been under fire for poor performance of many of the online charter schools it operates.” DeVos has also delayed the implementation of two measures designed to deter for-profit colleges from defrauding and impoverishing students. This delay has prevented victimized students from getting debt relief, but may help buoy the financial stability of ALEC-affiliated for-profit college corporations. DeVos and ALEC are both in favor of expanding online for-profit charter schools, which have a dismal record of academic performance but are extremely profitable.

    NPR also highlighted the extent to which DeVos’ and ALEC’s agendas overlap, quoting ALEC’s education policy head, Inez Feltscher, saying that DeVos "has been a wonderful champion for school choice both before and after becoming secretary of education, and advancing educational choice is one of the key issues we work on here at ALEC." University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Julie Underwood summarized ALEC’s education policy agenda to NPR as "vouchers, vouchers, vouchers."

    DeVos indeed views the expansion of vouchers as a key policy objective, and she and ALEC even point to the same states as role models. DeVos has praised Arizona's, Indiana’s, and Florida’s versions of voucher programs. Arizona just passed legislation enacting an unprecedented voucher program with universal eligibility and functionally no regulation. Florida has the highest total number of students enrolled in voucher programs of any state in the country (not counting individual tax credit programs), and Indiana has the largest traditional voucher program. Arizona, Florida, and Indiana are also the only three states to receive the highest grade that ALEC awarded on its annual state education policy report card. ALEC was a co-signatory on a recent letter praising Devos’ “vision for empowering parents to choose the best educational setting for their children.” The letter emphasized the “innovative programs that are in place in states like Arizona, Florida, and Ohio.”

    DeVos is not the first member of the Trump administration to address ALEC’s annual meeting. Vice President Mike Pence addressed ALEC’s conference last summer, when he was governor of Indiana, in Indianapolis. As governor, Pence oversaw the rapid expansion of vouchers in Indiana. In his speech at the conference, he named this expansion of Indiana’s voucher program as one of his key accomplishments.

  • After years of right-wing media attacks, Republicans now hate college

    New research shows a majority of Republicans have a negative view of higher education

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A new Pew Research Center report finds that a sharply increasing number of Republicans surveyed have a negative view of colleges. This follows years of concerted right-wing media attacks on higher education.

    Media Matters has reported extensively on conservative media’s portrayals of higher education. Here are four ways that conservatives demonize American colleges and universities, and several instances where conservative media misrepresented or sensationalized the words or actions of administrators, professors, and students, helping to convince audiences that higher education is bad for America.

    1) Conservatives claim liberal colleges turn students into jihadis, Nazis, and fascists

    Conservative media often depict colleges and universities as places where students are brainwashed and radicalized. According to Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, colleges are “literally corrupting people’s minds” and “turning them into jihadists.” Meanwhile, Fox News contributor Bernie Goldberg equated "liberals on college campuses" to the Nazi "Brown Shirts."

    Then-Fox News host Bill O'Reilly blamed Black Lives Matter for "the rise of fascism on American college campuses."

    2) Mocking students for seeking “safe spaces” and fearing assault

    Conservative media often use the concept of so-called “safe spaces” to mock colleges and college students for seeking to create welcoming environments on campus. Fox contributor Judith Miller told student protesters: "You want a safe space? Stay in your playpen." Fox News has characterized students protesting insensitive Halloween costumes as wrapping themselves in the “cloak of victimhood” and another Fox panel once argued college students advocating fossil-fuel divestment are “immature and irrational.”

    Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed, “it's gotten to the point where women on college campus imagine they're going to be raped. Imagine they have been raped. Write fake stories about being raped when it hasn't happened.” Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham lamented that discussing sexual consent policies "is what they spend their time doing at our American colleges and universities today" because efforts to get people riled up about the “patriarchy thing hadn’t really caught on.”

    Fox host Tucker Carlson even bemoaned that “everybody gets a safe space” at American colleges “except white men,” who he claimed “are hated and despised.”

    3) Outrage over University of Missouri protests

    In the fall of 2015, student protests began at the University of Missouri following a series of racist incidents on campus. Many students felt that the university administration was not doing enough to respond to events that made black students feel unsafe on campus. The protests eventually resulted in the resignation of the university’s president.

    Limbaugh claimed that the president resigned for "committing the crime of being a white male." Some conservative outlets resorted to name-calling with the conservative blog Red State calling the protesters "cowardly liberal lazy douchebags."

    According to Fox News, student protests focused on racial injustice are illegitimate, although armed protests against federal law are likely to be called "patriotic."

    4) Right-wing activists smear supposedly “biased” professors

    Right-wing activist groups like Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist compile and sensationalize perceived instances of liberal bias on college campuses to create profiles of professors who “discriminate against conservative students.” These profiles include contact information of targeted academics to facilitate trolling and harassment.

    Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist are just two of the many conservative groups funded by right-wing dark money networks in an effort to influence campus politics and university curriculum. Stories from these conservative websites often end up being promoted by right-wing news media such as Fox News.

    Media Matters recently described how this process happened to Trinity College sociology professor Johnny Eric Williams. Williams wrote a series of posts on race and policing and linked to a controversial article on social media. Campus Reform wrote an article on the posts, which was picked up by TheBlaze and The Daily Caller, before reaching The Washington Times. These articles resulted in a deluge of threats and harassment being directed toward Williams and Trinity and eventually a campus shutdown. Fox News then blamed the social media post, instead of the threatening right-wing responses, when it wrote, “Professor’s “profane, anti-white messages cause campus controversy.”

  • Conservative media misinformation leads to violent threats against professors

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The conservative media misinformation cycle is increasingly targeting college professors for engaging in what they call anti-white rhetoric. Some conservative advocacy groups and right-wing and conservative media are working together to produce fake news about professors, leading to threats, intimidation, and campus shutdowns.

    Several articles published in the past week in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed trace the path of misinformation as it moves through the conservative media ecosystem. The Chronicle notes: “Whether true or trumped up, tales of liberal faculty espousing tone-deaf or noxious views are good business for the network of conservative media outlets that purport to document the leftward drift of higher education.” The process often starts with Campus Reform, a website where conservative college students write about perceived liberal bias on campus.

    The Chronicle reports that “Campus Reform’s pieces are often stamped with the hallmarks of nonpartisan journalism” but that they are packaged with sensational headlines and generally fail to place professors’ comments in context. These stories are picked up by right-wing “longstanding industry leaders” such as “The National Review and edgier newcomers like Heat Street and The Blaze,” which then further skew the original stories in ways intended to resonate with their conservative audience. After bouncing around right-wing media, the stories may be picked up by more mainstream conservative media outlets such as Fox News. By this time the story often bears only a superficial resemblance to reality. The result of these right-wing media campaigns has sometimes been an outpouring of abuse and threats against the professors. Recent instances have resulted in one campus closing down, universities asking professors to take a leave from campus, and a professor moving to protect his family.

    For instance, one of the many examples the Chronicle documented was the case of Trinity College professor Johnny Eric Williams. On June 18, Williams published a series of Facebook posts on race and policing. He shared a controversial article titled “Let Them Fucking Die” that referenced the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise (LA-R).

    Campus Reform quickly wrote an article about Williams’ social network posts with the headline “Prof calls whites ‘inhuman assholes,’ says ‘let them die.’” The Blaze and The Daily Caller picked up the Campus Reform piece and wrote articles titled “College professor to blacks, other minorities: Let white people ‘f***ing die’” and “Professor Calls White People Inhuman,” respectively.

    On June 21, The Washington Times followed with an article based on these three pieces titled “Trinity College professor calls white people ‘inhuman’: ‘Let them f-ing die.’” Finally, Fox News published an article the same day titled “Professor’s profane, anti-white messages cause campus controversy.” Williams also issued a statement on June 21, defending his position: “It is evident to anyone who carefully reads my posts on Facebook and Twitter that I did not call for the death of all self-identified ‘whites,’” he said. He called the coverage a “provocative move to get readers to pay attention to my reasoned, reasonable, and yes angry argument.” But by then, the cycle was complete and the campus was temporarily shut down due to a multitude of violent threats.

    Trinity College eventually placed Williams on leave. Williams told the media that this was not his idea; the Hartford Courant quoted him saying, “They said it was in the interest of the college, primarily in their interest, not in my interest.”

    Media Matters has documented an extensive network of conservative and right-wing funders, advocacy organizations, and media organizations that work together to generate a toxic culture of harassment and intimidation. Campus Reform plays a critical role in this nexus by providing stories about college campuses. Campus Reform is also intimately connected to Professor Watchlist, another right-wing campus group that targets college professors and asks site visitors to “submit a tip” about professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Campus Reform is the primary documentary source that Professor Watchlist links to to substantiate professors’ purported anti-conservative discrimination. Two of the professors profiled in the recent Chronicle stories, Tommy Curry and Johnny Eric Williams, are also profiled on Professor Watchlist. Professor Watchlist currently lists 216 professors, complete with pictures, brief summaries of their alleged offenses, and links to stories of dubious quality detailing these offenses.

    Inside Higher Ed reports that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) “is definitely concerned about this trend” of professor intimidation. The article notes that some universities have offered “mixed responses” to professors in the wake of threats and intimidation. Universities have also censored, fired, or put on leave some professors, like Williams, who are targeted by these dishonest campaigns. They have also tried to cancel, or rename controversial courses that draw attention of the far right.

    Universities that fail to protect professors against the dishonest misinformation campaigns of conservative media are complicit in the rise in violent right-wing rhetoric on college campuses. A statement from AAUP, reported by the Chronicle, highlights the risk: “Threatening messages are likely to stifle free expression and cause faculty and others on campus to self-censor so as to avoid being subjected to similar treatment.” The conservative media that create the environment for these threats -- and the mainstream media outlets that fail to aggressively counter this misinformation -- are also at fault in creating less safe and less open universities.

  • PBS is airing right-wing-sponsored school privatization propaganda

    Blog ››› ››› BRETT ROBERTSON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department have pushed for an expansion of privatized school choice programs in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, particularly in the form of private school vouchers. Now a propagandistic three-part documentary series called School Inc. will help DeVos in her efforts to gain public support for expanded private school choice options. The series has already aired on PBS stations in some markets and will be shown on more this month.

    A majority of people across the partisan spectrum oppose private school vouchers, programs that redirect public education money to pay for private school tuition. Vouchers are problematic for many reasons, including their history of allowing for discrimination against LGBTQ, disabled, and special education students, their impact on reducing public education funding, and their ineffectiveness in boosting academic achievement.

    Despite these problems, private school vouchers are a long-standing priority of the corporations and right-wing funders backing the education privatization movement. The late Andrew Coulson, long-time head of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, was the driving force behind School Inc. The Cato Institute is a right-wing, libertarian think-tank that calls for the elimination of public schools in support of greater “educational freedom” to choose from a free market of privately run schools.

    In addition to School Inc.’s roots in the radical, libertarian Cato Institute, education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch found that the film was funded by a number of arch-conservative foundations with ties to the “dark money ATM” DonorsTrust and the Ayn Rand Institute. Ravitch has prescreened School Inc. and provided this scathing review to The Washington Post:

    This program is paid propaganda. It does not search for the truth. It does not present opposing points of view. It is an advertisement for the demolition of public education and for an unregulated free market in education. PBS might have aired a program that debates these issues, but “School Inc.” does not.

    Why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education? PBS responded in part with a statement to the Post, saying, "PBS and local member stations aim to offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue on important topics affecting local communities."

    However, as Ravitch notes, when a documentary fails to objectively present information about a topic that may not be well understood by the general public, the result is unlikely to “promote civic dialogue.” And when major media outlets uncritically provide a platform to right-wing ideologues, they further misinform and polarize the debate around important issues such as public education.