Every Student Succeeds Act

Buckle Up, Betsy DeVos: House Democrats Take the Helm

More oversight on horizon
By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — November 13, 2018 7 min read
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is poised to assume leadership of the House education committee, which could put Trump administration education officials on the hot seat, even as Republicans retain leadership in the Senate side of Congress.

As Democrats take control of the U.S House of Representatives for the first time since 2010, they could usher in some big changes in how Washington approaches education and a lot more oversight of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. But it won’t necessarily mean huge changes in policy.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is set to be the next chairman of the House education committee in the 116th Congress as a result of last week’s midterm elections. He would replace Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who’s been the committee chairwoman for the past two years. In addition, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is on track to lead the House appropriations subcommittee that handles the budget for the U.S. Department of Education.

Scott and his fellow Democrats will be primed to focus on a host of issues at the Education Department, after criticizing many of its policies since DeVos took the reins.

“I think at the top of the list is working for educational equity, oversight of the Trump administration and particularly Secretary DeVos on civil rights, consumer protection, for-profit colleges. I think that’s where Democrats are going to want to keep a close eye,” said Alice Johnson Cain, who served as a top aide to Democrats on the House education committee and is now the executive vice president of TeachPlus, a teacher-advocacy organization.

Issues of Oversight

However, any wholesale policy changes on education coming from the House would likely be checked by President Donald Trump and by the Senate, which will remain in GOP hands. And legislation addressing special education, data privacy, and other thorny issues might run aground in a divided Congress.

In a statement after the election results, Scott said, “The desire for access to a quality education, a good job, and affordable health care for ourselves and our families are universal values.”

Now that the Democrats have taken the House, DeVos and her team are likely to shift from trying to build momentum for a school choice program to raising their right hands and swearing under oath.

Prime targets for Democratic scrutiny in committee hearings include: the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance directing schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their gender identity; encouraging school districts to take race into account when promoting student diversity; and DeVos’ move to delay an Obama rule calling for states to ensure that minority students aren’t disproportionately identified for special education. The department’s move to replace Obama-era sexual assault guidance could also come under a microscope.

“Mr. Scott is about civil rights and kids, and that’s going to have to be a focus, making sure the law is being abided by,” said Jamie Fasteau, who worked as a top aide to Democrats on the House education committee and is now a principal at EducationCounsel, a consulting organization in Washington. (Fasteau was referring to both the Every Student Succeeds Act and civil rights laws such as Title IX, which covers gender discrimination.)

DeVos is also considering yanking another Obama guidance document calling on schools to ensure that students of color aren’t subjected to harsher discipline than their peers.

Yet even with total GOP control in the current Congress, DeVos’ school choice agenda hasn’t gotten much traction. That’s, in part, the consequence of opposition from rural Republicans who don’t think private school vouchers or charters would work for their states and don’t want to divert money from public schools, and in part, to conservatives who are reluctant to create a brand-new program.

Other potential targets for Democratic oversight are the department’s ESSA enforcement, its approach to school safety, and the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

‘Couldn’t Be Deader’

Some are wondering why DeVos would even want to stick around just to handle a flood of subpoenas.

“Her agenda has gone from dead, to really dead, couldn’t be deader,” said Michael Petrilli, who served in the federal Education Department during the George W. Bush administration and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right think tank.

And he said she’s making life difficult for other supporters of school choice. “It is not helpful having her in that role.

She has become controversial and unpopular. Especially, school choice ends up being dragged down at least somewhat by her unpopularity. She can’t use her bully pulpit very effectively.”

DeVos has said she’s committed to staying on for the president’s first term. But the GOP-controlled Congress nixed her proposal to allow federal money to follow students to the public school of their choice. And a behind-the-scenes effort to create a federal tuition-tax-credit program never got off the ground.

Her consolation prize: language in sweeping tax-overhaul legislation allowing families to use 529 college-savings plans for private school tuition. DeVos initially called it a good start but added that “it doesn’t address the needs of the parents who are from lower-income [communities] and does not empower them in significant ways.” She later described it as a significant step forward for choice.

The secretary hasn’t had the kind of face time with Democratic members of Congress and state officials that she’s had with Republicans. DeVos met with 10 times as many GOP members of Congress during her first 1½ years in office than Democrats, according to an Education Week analysis. Only a couple of those scheduled meetings were with Scott.

“The secretary is willing to work with any member of Congress who wants to rethink education and do better for America’s students,” said her spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hill, in response to a question about DeVos’ schedule. “The secretary’s door remains open to anyone who wants to get work done and break down the barriers that are holding back needed progress.”

As for Scott, Democrats could push their version of the Aim Higher Act, a reauthorization of federal higher education law. But they’ll have to work with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who’s on track to remain the Senate education committee chairman, to get a bill over the finish line. Alexander, in turn, has long sought to lead a revamp of the Higher Education Act, and his chairmanship of the committee will expire in 2020.

Fasteau noted that “Democrats like to legislate, especially on education,” and that Scott has a good working relationship with Foxx, the current committee chairwoman.

DeLauro, in fact, assuming she takes over the House subcommittee for education appropriations, might have more impact on the federal government’s role in education than Scott. She has sharply criticized the Trump administration’s attempts to cut the Education Department’s budget.

Turnover in the House

Several Republicans on the House education committee who were locked in tight midterm races went down to defeat last week.

Reps. Dave Brat of Virginia and Jason Lewis of Minnesota lost their races to Democratic challengers, as did Rep. Karen Handel of Georgia, who was just wrapping up her first term in Congress.

They’re not the only lawmakers who won’t return to the committee next year.

Among them are Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, both R-Ind., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. Rokita and Polis are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, and Messer is a longtime and prominent champion of school choice. (Polis is leaving Congress and was elected Colorado’s next governor last week, while Messer and Rokita vacated their seats to vie for the Indiana Senate seat ultimately won by Republican Mike Braun.)

Education played an interesting role in several prominent Senate races. Results in those contests include:

• Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., lost to Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Nelson and Scott traded accusations about school safety and gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school massacre in February. Scott signed legislation earlier this year that imposed new restrictions on gun purchases in Florida, but also allowed districts to arm educators if they chose to. The new law has the support of some Parkland families, and families of the victims were split when it came to support for Nelson and Scott.

• In a race for an open Tennessee Senate seat, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., defeated former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. Bredesen backed Tennessee’s involvement in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program and moves to include test scores in the state’s teacher-evaluation system. Blackburn has backed charter schools and making home schooling easier.

• GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who beat Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke to keep his Texas Senate seat, helped push through a change to the federal tax code to allow money in 529 savings plans to be spent on K-12 as well as higher education. It was a notable win for school choice this Congress. O’Rourke voted for ESSA and has previously backed increased funding for public schools.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Buckle Up, Betsy DeVos: House Democrats Take the Helm

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