U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shared her views on how schools should deal with undocumented immigrant students—which caused a stir—and defended her record on civil rights during testimony before federal lawmakers during a wide-ranging hearing last week.
DeVos also told the House education committee that she expects the federal school safety commission, which President Donald Trump appointed her to lead in March, will wrap up its work and release its findings by the end of this year.
Even though the hearing took place just a few days after a teenager allegedly shot and killed 10 people at the Santa Fe, Texas, high school he attended, DeVos did not share details about the work of the commission so far, and for the most part, committee members did not press her for her views on school violence.
Instead, committee lawmakers focused chiefly on how DeVos has handled racial disparities in discipline, civil rights probes, and her views on school choice, among other topics.
The May 22 hearing was the fifth time DeVos has publicly testified before Congress, including her January 2017 confirmation hearing. Her predecessors leading the U.S. Department of Education, among them Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings,during equivalent time periods early in their tenures.
The school safety commission has only met once, although DeVos did hear from researchers and advocates on safety issues earlier this month. Its other members include Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Its primary goal, DeVos said, was to share promising models for schools to consider to promote school safety and to ensure they “have the tools to be able to make the right decisions to protect their own buildings and their own communities.” She assured the lawmakers that the commission would meet with a wide variety of groups and constituencies in its deliberations.
Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, credited DeVos with at least being willing to discuss the issue in future hearings. But he said it’s hard to know what to make of DeVos’ safety commission so far, since he’s not sure who’s involved and impacting its direction.
“You can have people in the room with you and credit them for being there. But if they’re not participating, then the wrap-up document is going to be skewed,” Scott said after the hearing.
DeVos’ most controversial remarks may have come in an exchange with Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., on the subject of undocumented students.
Espaillat asked DeVos if she thought an educator had a responsibility to report an undocumented immigrant student, or an undocumented family member, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Sir, I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision,” DeVos told Espaillat. “We have laws and we also are compassionate. And I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion around this.”
The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe found that districts can’t adopt policies that discourage undocumented immigrants, or other specific groups of students, from enrolling in public schools.
A 2014 directive from the Education Department under the Obama administration said that districts can’t require students to provide information about their immigation status in order to establish residency. And a letter sent the same year by the Obama administration to school officials specified that schools cannot deny basic educational services to undocumented immigrant students.
Immigration and other advocates quickly denounced DeVos’ remarks.
For example, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund charged DeVos with “dereliction of duty” for not understanding the precedent set by Plyler.
“Any public school or school district that denies an education to any undocumented child—whether by refusing to enroll, by limiting access to the programs and benefits provided to other students, or by reporting a child to ICE—has violated the United States Constitution,” the group said in a statement. There are circumstances in which immigration authorities can access a school and seek information about students, although this is not common.
Civil Rights Enforcement
DeVos spent much of the hearing defending her record on civil rights enforcement, or stressing to Democratic lawmakers in particular that while she was dedicated to protecting civil rights, she would not create new laws or legal requirements at the Education Department.
When Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., asked whether she would follow legal precedent that established protections for transgender students, DeVos said that court precedent was mixed on that issue, that Congress had not settled the question, and that she would not “make up” federal law to clarify the issue.
Last year, DeVos and Sessions repealed Obama-era guidance stating that transgender students should be given access to school facilities that match their gender identity.
And while DeVos said it was “not tolerable” if two students of different races were treated differently after committing the same infraction, she also said she was ultimately focused on treating students as individuals in order to ensure they received equitable access to educational services.
Scott and DeVos had a contentious exchange about a longtime sore spot for Democrats: their complaint that the secretary has approved state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act that don’t appropriately account for the performance of vulnerable students in school ratings and for school improvement purposes.
ESSA requires schools to track and report the performance of student subgroups, but their precise and required role in ratings and improvement has been a subject of disagreement between Democrats and DeVos for some time.
During the hearing, Scott challenged her to explain that and asked her to recite what she thought ESSA requires of states on the subject.
DeVos shot back that while Scott might wish certain things to be included in the main federal K-12 law, she was not bound by such desires. She told him that the ESSA plans she had approved comported with the law. Repeating a theme she used throughout the hearing, DeVos said, “I will not add to the law. I will follow the law.”
DeVos also got a chance to weigh in on recent teacher walkouts in several states.
When Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., asked for her thoughts on the walkouts in states like Arizona and Oklahoma, DeVos said she thought the education system needed to treat teachers differently.
“There’s no one more important to a student’s education than a great teacher,” DeVos told Grijalva. “I think they should be better compensated. I think they should be treated as professionals. The system as it is today doesn’t treat them as professionals.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Deflects Criticism at Capitol Hill Hearing