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Equity & Diversity

Five Things to Watch for When Betsy DeVos Makes Rare Visit to Capitol Hill

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 20, 2018 5 min read
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump, Monday, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.
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For the fifth time since the start of last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will testify publicly before Congress on Tuesday.

The secretary will speak to lawmakers on the House education committee about the “policies and priorities” of the U.S. Department of Education. Compared to her predecessors, DeVos hasn’t been on Capitol Hill a lot during her roughly 16 months as education secretary, at least in terms of public appearances: She’s testified before spending committees three times, and once to the Senate education committee for her rocky confirmation hearing in January 2017. Tuesday’s hearing would be the first time she’s testified before the House committee that deals with K-12 issues.

DeVos has met privately a few times recently with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But education committee lawmakers haven’t had the chance to ask DeVos detailed questions in public about her track record. In fact, on Friday, House committee Democrats sent out a fact sheet pointing out that her predecessors spent significantly more time testifying to Congress over comparable periods of time. In former Secretary Arne Duncan’s first 15 months, for example, he testified to Congress nine times.

With a big House election in November coming up, Dems on Tuesday might be particularly eager to trip DeVos up during her testimony and spin what they see as embarrassing sound bites into campaign ads.

So what might lawmakers ask DeVos? Democrats in particular will have pointed questions for her in the name of opposition party oversight; here are a few prominent items that might come up.

1) Civil Rights

The Democrats have made it plain for some time that they are strongly opposed to how DeVos is approaching civil rights. Just a few days ago, for example, Democrats on the House committee used a hearing on student-data privacy issues to condemn the secretary’s approach to everything from transgender students’ access to school facilities, to racial disparities in school discipline. And on the same day, Democratic leadership also used a forum on the anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to criticize the Trump administration’s approach to civil rights in education.

DeVos is at different stages on these issues. She’s already rolled back the Obama-era guidance designed to ensure the transgender students access to the facilities that match their gender identity, for example, while the Obama guidance on discipline disparities is in flux. Expect questions (as well as lengthy statements) on those fronts, as well as on issues like her decision to kill Obama-era guidance on Title IX and sexual assault and her proposed delay to an Obama-era rule on identifying racial disparities in special education.

It’s unclear if committee Republicans who agree with DeVos on many issues will wade into this topic, but if they do, they might ask DeVos to describe how these sorts of moves have granted or might grant states and schools more flexibility to deal with these issues in their local contexts.

2) School Safety

The school shooting at a Texas high school on Friday could spur questions from both Democrats and Republicans about the federal school safety commission DeVos is leading—she hosted a commission meeting last week. So far, the commission’s proceedings have been closed to the public and some school groups have complained that they’ve been shut out.

DeVos has previously said that it’s best left up to schools to determine if they should provide staff with firearms in order to improve safety.

3) Every Student Succeeds Act Oversight

Since DeVos started approving state ESSA plans, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, has publicly criticized her for signing off on plans that he and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate education committee’s leading Democrat, say violate the law.

The thrust of their complaints is that DeVos is letting states be too lax when it comes to ensuring protections for historically disadvantaged groups of students. DeVos has denied this, arguing that the state plans she’s approved comport with the law. Murray and Scott have also criticized DeVos’ process for reviewing ESSA plans. This is an issue adjacent to the civil rights issues we’ve noted above.

4) School Choice

The Trump administration’s push to expand school choice through the federal appropriations process has almost entirely failed. (Congress did agree to give a slight boost to federal charter school aid, far short of what President Donald Trump and DeVos have sought.) So it’s not as if Democrats can rail against a new voucher program that DeVos controls. However, Democrats in the past have been eager to mix it up with DeVos about choice—see Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark’s exchange with DeVos last year, for example. They might do so again.

Conversely, Republicans might encourage DeVos to at least discuss the benefits of choice and what she’s seen on her visits to various schools. Remember, though, that the Trump team just said it doesn’t support a bill from Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., that would divert a portion of Impact Aid money to create education savings accounts for children connected to the military.

5) Department Reforms

DeVos is seeking to revamp the Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education, as well as the office of English-language acquisition.

DeVos wants to “break down silos” (in the words of a department spokeswoman) and group people together by their skill sets rather than by which programs they oversee with respect to her department’s elementary and secondary education work. And as for its English-language acquisition work, her team says it is considering merging those services with others that focus on separate populations of traditionally disadvantaged students.

These potential moves are part of a broader push to reorganize the department with the goal of making it more efficient and responsive, in DeVos’ view. This might get a favorable review in Republican’s comments and remarks, and less so from Democrats.

One related issue: Republicans could ask her about how the relatively slow progress of Education Department nominees through the Senate is hampering her work. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., complained about this issue and put the blame on Democrats last week, when Mick Zais was confirmed by senators to be DeVos’ deputy secretary. Zais was nominated by Trump in October.