House Democrats and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sparred over civil rights, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and teachers’ salaries at a hearing Tuesday, but lawmakers from both parties largely avoided controversial questions about school safety in the aftermath of a Texas high school shooting last week that left 10 students and staff dead.
Appearing before the House education committee, DeVos emphasized that the federal school safety commission she leads is working quickly, and that its ultimate goal is to ensure that schools “have the tools to be able to make the right decisions to protect their own buildings and their own communities.”
She said the commission was developing a timeline for its work, but also said that she planned to have the commission report its findings by year’s end.
“We are looking forward to [hearing from] every interest group, every constituency, particularly teachers, parents, and law enforcement and school leadership,” DeVos told lawmakers, later adding that, “We seek to look at models across the country.”
The commission has only met once since it was created in March after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., although the secretary met last week with school safety researchers, as well as parents of children killed in school shootings. Its other members are Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. DeVos previously has said that schools should be able to decide if they want to provide staff with firearms to improve safety, but did not share detailed personal opinions on school safety in general with the committee.
Diverse Approach to Safety
Several education groups have complained that they’ve had been unfairly shut out of DeVos’ school safety commission. Last week, DeVos met behind closed doors with researchers who’ve looked into past school shootings such as at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and at Virginia Tech. (Her department subsequently released a video of this meeting.)
At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the committee chairwoman, highlighted the $1.1 billion Title IV grant in ESSA that schools can use to create a “multipronged approach to student safety.” DeVos also said her department was encouraging disricts to consider that money when considering safety programs.
However, that block grant can be used for a variety of programs, from education technology to student health, and isn’t earmarked solely for school safety efforts.
When discussing the 2014 Obama adminstration guidance on racial disparities in discipline, Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., asked DeVos if she thought that school discipline was linked to school safety and violent incidents—DeVos responded in the affirmative. The disciplinary policy in the Broward County district in Florida has come under intense scrutiny, following the Parkland shooting that left 17 students and staff dead.
Teacher Pay and Walkouts
The House hearing covered a wide range of issues that have cropped up since DeVos officially took over as secretary early last year.
In response to questions about recent state teacher walkouts from Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., DeVos stopped short of calling for better teacher pay across the board. But she did say that certain teachers deserve more money, and that the system should be more flexible to better serve educators.
“There’s no one more important to a student’s education than a great teacher,” DeVos said. “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.”
In response, however, Grijalva stressed that in his state of Arizona at least, the teacher walkout also stemmed from the lack of basic resources and classroom materials, as well as voucher programs that divert money from traditional public schools.
During the Oklahoma teacher walkout, DeVos said that educators shouldn’t let “adult disagreements” get in the way of what’s best for kids.
Vulnerable Students Under ESSA
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the committee, honed in on how state Every Student Succeeds Act deals with subgroups of students that are historically disadvantaged, such as black and Hispanic children.
Scott repeatedly pressed DeVos over worries that he and other Democrats have expressed that the state ESSA plans she’s approved give school grades without appropriately considering those student subgroups. Democrats have also said that DeVos-approved plans might lead to achievement gaps between groups of students being ignored.
At one point, Scott demanded to know what she thought the law said about these issues, and DeVos responded that she hadn’t approved ESSA plans that didn’t comport with the law. He later asked her with respect to ESSA’s emphasis on achievement gaps, “How can that purpose be fulfilled if you’re ranking schools not based on subgroup performance?”
DeVos pushed back, arguing that although he might wish certain things were a part of the law, she was focused on approving plans that followed the law, telling Scott, “I will not add to the law. I will follow the law.”
‘I Am Not Going to Make Up Law’
Indeed, DeVos repeatedly stressed her focus on following federal statutes, while not committing herself to Obama administration policies, when Democrats grilled her on civil rights issues.
They honed in on the decision to roll back Obama-era guidance designed to protect transgender students’ access to facilities that match their gender identity, as well as her move to delay a rule regarding racial disparities in education, and her decision to reconsider 2014 Obama guidance that targets racial disparities in school discipline.
When Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., asked whether she would follow legal precedent that established protections for transgender students, DeVos said court precedent was mixed on that issue and that Congress had not settled the question. “I am not going to make up law at the Department of Education,” DeVos said.
On school discipline, DeVos told the House committee that, “It is not tolerable if a student of one color is disciplined more harshly than a student of another color for the same infraction.” But she also stressed that it’s important to treat students as individuals to ensure equitable access to education—that reflects the general shift away from having civil rights investigations focus on systemic issues under DeVos.
At the end of the hearing, Scott alleged that if the Trump administration repealed the 2014 guidance on discipline guidance, it would send the message that, “Racial discrimination is okay, so long as it is in the name of school safety.”
DeVos told Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, that with respect to the Education Department’s enforcement of civil rights law, “We do so proudly and with great focus each day.” And when Fudge accused her of failing to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, DeVos shot back, “We haven’t done any such thing.”
The secretary also told Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., that it was up to schools whether to refer students that they learned were undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, an answer that Espaillat said left out the federal role in such policies. (Schools are prohibited from asking about students’ immigration status in order to establish residency in a district.) “We are a compassionate people, and we are also a nation of laws. We need to respect and honor both,” DeVos told him.
A veteran school choice advocate before taking over as education secretary, DeVos fielded questions from both parties about the issue.
In an exchange with Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., DeVos made it clear that she wants to see new education savings accounts for military families, but doesn’t want Impact Aid—a program designed to help districts where the tax base impacted by federal activities—used for them.
Banks earlier this year proposed a bill that would use Impact Aid to create ESAs for children connected to the armed forces. That proposal has fallen short in Congress. “We have to think more broadly about how we ensure the needs of those families and give military-connected families more choices in their children’s education,” DeVos said.
In a testier exchange with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., the lawmaker asked her about her statements last week that state laws prohibiting public funds going to private schools represented bigotry. “I believe that it continues to be a real impediment to families’ ability to improve education as they desire for their children,” DeVos responded.
When DeSaulnier responded by asking why an Indiana private school in the state voucher program wasn’t being bigoted by discriminating against LGBT students, DeVos responded that the state had ultimate power over the program’s parameters. “That’s convenient,” DeSaulnier quipped.
Tuesday’s hearing was just the fifth time DeVos has testified in public to lawmakers—that number includes her confirmation hearing in January 2017. By contrast, her predecessors such as Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings testified on the Hill more frequently early in their tenures as secretary.
In previous hearings before other committees, Democrats have grilled DeVos on vouchers, disparities in school discipline, and the Trump administration’s proposals to cut her department’s budget, among other issues.
Can’t get enough of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Check out some of our best coverage:
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Photo: A giant television screen projects an image of the proceedings as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on May 22 in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)