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Betsy DeVos Fights Dems on Vouchers, Safety, Civil Rights in Budget Hearing

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 20, 2018 6 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sparred with House Democrats over the Trump administration’s proposed budget’s support for private school choice, and its cuts to programs related to civil rights, safety, and after-school.

In the Tuesday House appropriations subcommittee hearing, DeVos said the administration’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal would maintain its support for disadvantaged students, while also attempting to ensure greater opportunities for them through a new, $1 billion school choice program. She also highlighted $200 million in funds for science, technology, engineering, and math education, made available through the current Education Innovation and Research program, as well as level funding for the Title I program focused on disadvantaged sudents ($14.9 billion), as well as for special education ($12.8 billion).

The budget proposed by the Trump administration would cut $3.6 billion from the Education Department, a 5.3 percent reduction that would lower the department’s total spending to just over $63 billion.

“President Trump is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education, and that is reflected in this budget,” DeVos told committee members.

Republicans were largely supportive of the budget but also expressed concerns.

Rep.Tom Cole, R-Okla., the subcommittee chairman, indicated that the proposed Trump budget for fiscal 2019 was better than its fiscal 2018 pitch when it comes to students with special needs. But he also told DeVos, “I am concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.” (The fiscal 2018 omnibus budget Congress is due to roll out very soon could ignore Trump’s big ideas for education, particularly the expansion of choice.)

Democrats were more blunt. They declared that the budget proposal would rob public schools to support vouchers, take funds away from programs and personnel that support school safety such as counselors, and ultimately leave students, teachers, and schools without the resources to succeed.

“You can’t do more with less. You do less with less,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the subcommittee’s top Democrat, told DeVos.

‘You Just Don’t Care Much’

At times, the exchanges became heated and personal. Towards the end of the hearing, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and DeVos argued over a $1 million cut the budget would make to the office for civil rights, down to $108 million, as well as DeVos’ attitude towards Obama-era discipline guidance to schools.

DeVos said that the civil rights office has become more efficient in investigating and closing complaints, and that it has delegated more power to the field. Discussing her review of Obama school discipline guidance from 2014 that was designed to address racial disparities in discipline policies, the secretary said, “Clearly the stated goal of the guidance is one that we embrace, to ensure that no child is discriminated against.” DeVos also indicated to Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., that she had seen data showing that students of color were disproportionately disciplined.

But Lee said the proposed office for civil rights cut, combined with DeVos’ potential decision to reconsider the discipline guidance as well as Obama-era guidance on students of color in special education, revealed the secretary’s true position.

“Your head is in the sand about racial bias and racial discrimination,” Lee said. “You just don’t care much about the civil rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.”

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., came to DeVos’ defense on the Obama guidance, saying it has made school officials in his district worried about backlash if they take action to rein in disruptive students: “They’ve just stopped disciplining people. They’re just afraid to do it.” (Harris did not cite statistics to demonstrate this.)

Awkard Timing

Like its previous budget proposal for fiscal 2018, the Trump team seeks to eliminate Title II’s $2 billion in teacher grants for professional development. It would also get rid of federal funding for the $1.1 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which pays for after-school programs.

The budget also contains a $1 billion proposal for expanding school choice. The money could go to private school choice programs, as well as to districts seeking to participate in a weighted-funding pilot for public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act. (More here.) There’s also a boost to federal charter school aid of roughly 50 percent, up to $500 million, in the proposal.

The timing for Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing on the fiscal 2019 budget proposal took place under somewhat awkward circumstances, given that Congress is slated to begin officially considering an omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2018 this week, ahead of a March 23 deadline to fund the government for fiscal 2018.

Cole acknowledged as much, telling DeVos that, “We’ve put you in a very difficult spot by not getting our work done in a timely fashion.”

But Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., also criticized DeVos’ staff for not working more closely with committee staff on budget and spending matters, telling DeVos, “I’m concerned that we have sort of a disconnect here.”

Pressure On

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for DeVos, ever since she struggled at times during an interview with “60 Minutes” with questions about test scores, school choice, and more. Her supporters say that the CBS program treated her unfairly, but her detractors say she merely showed her weak grasp of the issues. And last weekend, Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live” mocked DeVos in a brief skit.

Democrats tried to keep the pressure up.

They quizzed her about the administration’s proposal to eliminate Title IV, a $400 million block grant for districts that can be used to pay for school counseling and related activities, asking how such a cut would help school safety. (The budget also cuts School Safety National Activities program from $68 million to $43 million, and refocuses it on stemming the opioid criss.)

The secretary actually indicated she wouldn’t oppose the idea of Title IV surviving in the budget in some form, saying, “I encourage Congress to revisit this program.”

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House appropriations committee, pressed DeVos on what she thought should be an active role of the federal government with respect to information parents get about special education vouchers. DeVos responded that while her department was committed to enforcing federal special education law and wanted parents to be well-informed, states offering those vouchers had their roles and responsibilities outside Washington’s control.

She also defended the Trump administration’s work on school safety. DeVos is leading a federal commission that will examine a variety of issues potentially impacting school safety, but she did not provide much in the way of her own positions on the subject. DeVos has previously said that arming school staff might be the right move for some districts, but shouldn’t be mandatory.

In announcing her role as leader of the White House school safety task force over a week ago, DeVos stressed that schools should explore efforts to support students and help them feel connected. She told reporters about a teacher who regularly asked her students to name a list of people they want to sit by in class and to list a few peers who would want to sit by them. The exercise helped her identify students who may be socially isolated, she said.

At the hearing, she did concede to Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., that if she had a do-over of her 2017 confirmation hearing statement that guns might be in schools to protect against grizzly bears, she would pick a different eample.

And she addressed backlash to her statement on “60 Minutes” that she had not intentionally visited low-performing schools. She said she was open to the idea, but added, “I think it would be important to visit some poor performing schools, I think the question is: will they let me in?”

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos leans over to listens to U.S. Department of Education staffer Bill Cordes as they wait to testify before a House Committee on Appropriation subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 20. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)