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In a sharply worded letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, key Democrats on the House education committee lambasted the department for its investigations of Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, for racial bias, as well as the administration's prohibition on institutions using federal funds for diversity training.

“Such actions not only threaten to exacerbate existing structures of racism in the education system and broader society, but also infringe on an ideal the Department regularly invokes -- free speech,” wrote Education and Labor Committee chairman Bobby Scott and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, chair of the panel’s civil rights and human services subcommittee.

“It is also inappropriate for the department to wield its oversight powers to limit free and open discourse, even if leadership at the department does not agree with that discourse,” wrote Scott, of Virginia, and Bonamici, of Oregon.

The letter criticizes a number of recent actions by the administration, including its investigation of UCLA because it has opened a review into allegations that a professor repeatedly used a racial slur against Blacks in class. The department, according to the Democrats, is accusing the university of “improperly and abusively target[ing]” the professor, who is white.

“It seems self-evident that a university should be able to consider whether a white professor should use an extremely offensive racial slur without being subject to the heavy hand of a federal investigation,” Scott and Bonamici wrote. “And it is bizarre that the federal government would attempt to forestall such consideration by the University, casting aside any opportunity to reflect on whether a student is entitled to a federally subsidized education without being subject to the use of racial slurs.”

Scott and Bonamici also criticized President Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting the use of federal funds to promote concepts, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that the U.S. “is fundamentally racist or sexist” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” The order has forced some universities to stop diversity efforts.

The letter also criticizes Trump for saying the administration will investigate California for a new state law requiring high school students to take at least one class on racism, and for the creation of a 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education.”

A spokeswoman said the Education Department is reviewing the letter.

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