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DeVos Defends School Choice as Democrats Demand Answers on Arming Teachers

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 10, 2019 9 min read
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House Democrats who focus on education peppered U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos with questions about her vision for school choice, arming teachers, and federal education law during a lengthy, often confrontational hearing here Wednesday.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee chairman, set the tone when he highlighted the Education Department’s core mission of ensuring equitable opportunities for all students. “Unfortunately under the president’s fiscal 2020 budget, it would be nearly impossible to meet that challenge,” he said. That budget request would cut 10 percent from the department’s $71 billion budget and eliminate 29 programs covering literacy, educator training, and more, but is highly unlikely to pass Congress.

DeVos, meanwhile, repeatedly stressed that her vision and plans focused on students not systems, citing the proposed $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships that would provide tax credits to support private school tuition, transportation, after-school tutoring, and other educational services. When discussing the promise of boosting student apprenticeships to give students more pathways to success, for example, in a discussion Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan., DeVos said, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But we need to, from this level, make sure that the impediments that are there are broken down to the greatest extent possible.”

But Rep. Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and a newly elected Democrat from Connecticut, provided perhaps the most dramatic moments of the hearing when she raised the issue of using federal Title IV grant funds for arming teachers, which triggered a big controversy for DeVos last summer.

During her questioning of DeVos, Hayes entered into the record and highlighted a department memo, which she said was obtained through an information request from the group Democracy Forward, an anti-corruption group. A portion of the memo stated that DeVos had the authority, if she chose to use it, to decide whether it would be permissible to use the grant money for firearms and training teachers to use guns.

According to the Every Student Succeeds Act, Title IV grants—which currently get about $1.2 billion in federal aid—are to be used for student well-being, school safety, and academic enrichment.

“It is ... reasonable for the Secretary to disallow this particular use of the funds absent specific Congressional authorization, and it is unlikely that this interpretation would be subject to a successful legal challenge,” Jason Botel, a former top staffer to DeVos, wrote to Kent Talbert, a senior adviser, in July 2018, according to the memo Hayes submitted. He added that DeVos had “discretion” to interpret the law on this issue.

The same memo states that, “Arguments can be made for and against permitting the use of Title IV, Part A funds for purposes such as firearms for schools staff.” It also says ESSA “nearly clearly authorizes nor prohibits” using money for guns or arming teachers.

In response to Hayes, DeVos repeated what she said last summer: that she neither supported nor opposed using that money for such purposes, and that this decision was ultimately up to states. Hayes was unsatisfied with that response.

“You have the ability to make a decision. Your silence is a decision,” Hayes responded.

Wednesday marked DeVos’ first appearance before the House education committee after Democrats won the House last November. Dating back to last summer, Democrats on Capitol Hill have indicated that if they were to regain control of the House, they would take DeVos to task on a number of issues.

DeVos’ first apperance before a House panel controlled by Democrats last month—a budget subcommittee—led to a national uproar over proposed elimination of federal funding for the Special Olympics. The issue prompted enough outrage on social media and elsewhere that two days later, the president announced he was rescinding that proposal. Ultimately, decisions about which programs receive federal aid lie with Congress, not the president.

Republicans on Wednesday were eager to focus on DeVos’ support for school choice and the Freedom Scholarships, They were also critical of the approach Democratic lawmakers took. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the committee’s top Republican, said Democrats had not used the hearing to make good-faith inquiries into how the Education Department serves students.

“This is a gotcha hearing,” Foxx said near the end of proceedings.

Choice in the Spotlight

At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, had her own pointed exchange with DeVos about the Freedom Scholarships proposal. She compared its potential impact to that of the 2017 tax cuts signed by the president, which she said ultimately benefited the rich.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,” Fudge said. “By any other name, it is a voucher.”

Vouchers function differently than scholarships based on tax credits, because vouchers provide public revenue directly to parents in order for them to use towards private school tuition. Some critics say the tax-credit scholarship proposal ultimately amounts to transferring public funds into private hands, although DeVos’ team calls that claim inaccurate.

Fudge then challenged DeVos about tax-credit scholarship programs in Florida and Georgia, asking her if she knew that they had had no impact on student achievement. DeVos shot back, “You’re wrong,” and told Fudge she’d be happy to share data with her about the programs’ effect.

A recent Urban Institute study found that Florida students receiving the scholarships were more likely to attend college and earn a bachelor’s degree than comparable peers who did not receive them, although the study also acknowledged that other factors not measured by the study could have influenced those results.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., grilled DeVos about her approach to oversight of charter schools, calling it a “pressing question.” In response, DeVos highlighted the waiting lists for charter schools in the District of Columbia and New York City. She cast the issue of oversight more expansively than Grijalva: “If [charter schools] can’t serve students well, they shouldn’t exist. The same should be true for traditional public schools.”

When Grijalva called teachers “grossly underpaid” and asked what she thought the federal government should do about it, DeVos said, “The states and local communities have the most direct input into that,” and highlighted the budget proposal to create vouchers for teachers’ professional development. Grijalva replied, “My point is that they should get more pay.”

Meanwhile, Republicans were keen for DeVos to talk about how the Freedom Scholarships could be used in a variety of ways.

In a discussion with Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., about students in rural areas with no nearby private schools, DeVos noted how the scholarships could pay for things like course choice and the creation of “micro-school” communities within schools students already attended.

“There’s really limitless ideas that you could come up with to really tailor-make the options for the students that you’re serving,” DeVos said. At one point, she compared the Freedom Scholarships favorably to a bill from Democrats to increase federal aid for school infrastructure, saying, "$100 billion for buildings, versus $5 billion for students.” She also highlighted Trump’s push to double funding available for private school vouchers in the District of Columbia.

‘Accurate Information Is Critical’

Democrats also zeroed in on how DeVos had handled state ESSA plans.

Del. Gregorio Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands, the chairman of the House subcommittee that handles K-12, asked DeVos if she was aware that according to one estimate, 40 states were not disaggregating student achievement data for at least one subgroup that federal law required them to publicly report. (For more on this issue, go here.)

DeVos responded, “I did not approve any plans that did not comply completely with the law.”

Sablan took another crack at the issue, citing an Alliance for Excellent Education report from last year that 12 states’s ESSA plans did not include subgroups of students in all their school ratings. When DeVos reiterated that her team was monitoring states to ensure they followed the law, Sablan made his displeasure clear.

“We cannot advance equity without this information,” Sablan said. “Accurate information is critical for parents, educators, and policymakers.”

In a Tuesday meeting with state education chiefs, Scott also pressed this point, telling them ESSA doesn’t constitute a “blank check” that lets them ignore vulnerable students. Republicans have stressed that the law provides states with significant flexibility in creating school improvement systems and school report cards that share student achievement data with the public.

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., pressed DeVos as to why she was not making public the applications for waivers from ESSA for issues such as a cap on the share of students who can take alternative state exams due to cognitive disabiliites. Underwood said being transparent on this issue was a core civil rights issue, but DeVos said she would not make the department’s website a “filing cabinet” and use it to publicize these applications.

Civil Rights and Special Education

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., brought up the issue of Obama-era transgender guidance, which DeVos revoked in 2017 and was intended to ensure transgender students could access school facilities based on their gender identity.

When she asked DeVos whether she was aware of how these students often struggled with academic achievement and attendance, the secretary responded that her office for civil rights was committed to ensuring students could access their education free of harassment and discrimination. But DeVos did not share further details on her views.

A 2017 report from the advocacy group GLSEN found that students who reported being bullied for gender expression (which may overlap with gender identity) had higher rates of absenteeism than those who did not report such bullying.

A recent court decision on special education also came up. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., asked DeVos about where the department stood with respect to a March federal court ruling that the department cannot further delay a 2016 Obama rule that would change states’ monitoring process for how students of color are identified for and disciplined in special education services.

“We are in the process of implementing” the ruling, DeVos eventually said after a lengthy back and forth with Shalala, adding that she thought she could share the department’s timeline for the issue in about a week.

Shalala said the department should move quickly, telling DeVos, “Children are suffering every day.”

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos arrives at a House education committee hearing on April 10, 2019. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)