In a wide-ranging hearing before a Senate subcommittee last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos changed her stance on the role of schools in reporting undocumented students to federal authorities, explained what the school safety commission she heads will and will not focus on, and defended the Trump administration’s budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year as being focused on students and parents, not systems.
She also sparred with Democrats on the education spending subcommittee about her approach to the department’s office for civil rights, seeking to counter their claims that she was improperly cutting staffing levels by saying that she was committed to conducting its work to protect students in an efficient manner.
Much of DeVos’ recent focus has been on the federal school safety commission she was appointed to lead by President Donald Trump earlier this year. She recently visited a school in Maryland to learn about behavioral-intervention strategies, for example.
“One of the most important things we can do is help others learn about what has been effective,” DeVos told lawmakers.
Role of Firearms
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., quickly zeroed in on the topic and asked if the commission would be looking at the role of firearms in school violence. DeVos responded, “That is not part of the commission’s charge per se.” She stressed that the commission was focused on school safety.
However, when Trump announced the start of the commission in March in the wake of the mass killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the White House said the commission would examine “age restrictions for certain firearms purchases” among many issues, including “violent entertainment” and media coverage of mass shootings. The commission, made up entirely of Cabinet members, is due to release its findings by the end of this year.
Asked about the discrepancy between the White House and DeVos’ remark to Leahy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said: “The secretary and the commission continue to look at all issues the president asked the committee to study and are focused on making recommendations that the agencies, states, and local communities can implement. It’s important to note that the commission cannot create or amend current gun laws—that is the Congress’ job.” (The White House announcement states that the commission’s job is to generate “recommendations” to improve school safety.)
DeVos also shied away from offering an opinion when Leahy asked her whether she believed an 18-year-old high school student should be able to purchase an AR-15 rifle in a matter of minutes, stating only that, “I believe that’s very much a matter for debate.”
The secretary did make her position clear about another controversial issue she raised last month. In May, DeVos told the House education committee that schools could choose whether to report undocumented students to federal authorities, provoking a storm of protest from Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates.
Under questioning from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., DeVos initially said, “I think a school is a sacrosanct place for students to be able to learn, and they should be protected there. ... I think educators know in their hearts that students should have a safe place to learn.”
After Murphy repeatedly pressed her and wondered aloud why she declined to directly answer the question as to whether educators could call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on undocumented students, DeVos ultimately said, “I don’t think they can.”
Questions on Cuts
DeVos also defended the Trump budget against several criticisms from Democrats. The fiscal 2019 blueprint, released in February, would cut her agency’s budget to $63.2 billion. That would be a $7.7 billion reduction from fiscal 2018 levels signed into law by Trump in March. The spending bill the president signed represented a nearly wholesale rejection of the administration’s fiscal 2018 proposals to cut the department’s budget by more than 13 percent from fiscal 2017 levels.
DeVos got encouragement from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the subcommittee chairman, who told her that, “We should look at programs that are either inefficient or ineffective and prioritize the programs that work best for students.” However, he indicated that large formula-grant programs would likely remain as they are.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sparred with DeVos over her staff reductions at the office for civil rights and noted that Congress actually increased spending for the office in the fiscal 2018 spending bill Trump signed: “We’re going to take fewer claims and protect fewer students. That really isn’t how OCR is supposed to operate.”
DeVos responded that the office’s work had not deteriorated and that, “We are committed to ensuring that the rights of every student are protected.”
Democrats and DeVos have clashed frequently over civil rights issues. Murray and others have criticized DeVos for rolling back Obama administration guidance on transgender students and for changing how the civil rights office conducts investigations. They’ve also warned her not to repeal Obama-era guidance on racial disparities in discipline, which DeVos is current considering.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., among others, questioned the wisdom of the Trump budget blueprint’s call to eliminate two programs: Title II, which provides $2.1 billion in federal aid for educators’ professional development, and $1.1 billion in after-school funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs. Manchin stressed that such funding was useful for helping children affected by opioid addiction, for example, while DeVos stressed that other funding under Title IV, a flexible pot of federal money under the Every Student Succeeds Act, could be used by districts in a variety of ways to support such work.
And Manchin spoke for many Democrats when he rejected DeVos’ pitch that rural states like West Virginia could benefit from new school choice opportunities, stating that, among other things, his state simply doesn’t have internet connectivity in many instances: “We just can’t afford to start another education system.”
“You must understand how fast shootings happen and how chaotic and confusing it is. There’s no way to determine who and where the gunfire is coming from. Say I had a gun. Would I have left my terrified children? Never.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Goes Before Senators in Wide-Ranging Hearing