Federal

DeVos Grilled Over Education Budget Proposal at Congressional Hearing

Democrats rip proposal to slash agency funding
By Andrew Ujifusa — March 03, 2020 7 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos defends the Trump administration’s spending plan for the Education Department at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a contentious hearing about President Donald Trump’s education budget proposal that at one point became very personal, House Democrats said the plan would cut funding from key programs and fail to provide civil rights protections to students, while U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos argued that its proposed block grant would provide states and school districts more flexibility to better serve student needs.

Lawmakers and DeVos also clashed about charter schools, school resegregation, and school discipline during last week’s hearing in a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department’s budget.

DeVos defended the Trump fiscal 2021 budget blueprint that would cut $5.6 billion from the U.S. Department of Education’s current budget of $71.2 billion and roll most federal K-12 programs—29 in total—into a formula-driven block grant. DeVos said it would mark a positive departure from the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on public schools over several decades through long-standing approaches.

“What have we bought with all that spending?” DeVos asked, before answering her own question that there were merely “sad results” and highlighting recent results on a national exam. The secretary said the nation spends about $860 billion on K-12 education each year; recent statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics for public school spending put the figure at much lower than that.

After an intense exchange in the hearing over whether there were safeguards against discrimination in the administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal to boost school choice using $5 billion in tax credits, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., concluded her remarks by calling on DeVos to resign.

“Your inability to say that you would stand up for kids is appalling,” Clark said. Her office quickly shared the moment on social media, recalling last year’s viral furor over Trump’s proposal to cut federal Special Olympics aid that the president ultimately backed away from.

And during an interrogation of DeVos over federal grants to help charter schools expand, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., raised the idea that DeVos might have a conflict of interest in defending the grants because her husband, Dick DeVos Jr., founded a charter school, a suggestion that DeVos forcefully denied. That aviation-focused charter school, which DeVos stressed her husband does not run, operates as a nonprofit and is overseen by a nonprofit board.

Republicans mostly encouraged DeVos and her focus on choice as well as the budget’s proposed increase for career and technical education, which has been a bipartisan priority. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the subcommittee’s top Republican, said he didn’t agree with some elements of the block grant but praised her willingness to depart from orthodoxy: “You’ve never been afraid to put a bold idea on the table and advance it.” He also noted that DeVos was defending a budget plan devised by the administration’s Office of Management and Budget and not her department.

But the most significant moment of the hearing perhaps came when Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, told DeVos: “We are going to reject this proposal.”

Republicans Back Secretary

The comment underscored that Trump and DeVos have sought cuts to the Education Department for four straight years; in the last three spending bills approved by Congress, lawmakers have given slight increases to the agency’s overall budget and rejected signature K-12 choice initiatives from the White House, including a past proposal for a new grant under Title I, which targets disadvantaged students.

The disagreements became pointed enough at the hearing for Republicans on the committee to criticize how DeVos was being treated. And the arguments echoed past years’ spending scraps over how DeVos has handled the intersection of school choice and civil rights, with Democrats pressing her on whether she was leaving vulnerable students in the lurch, and DeVos countering that parents and students are demanding more choices, while also stressing that the department does not support discrimination.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the subcommittee’s chairwoman set the tone for the hearing when she rejected DeVos’ frequent comments that despite trillions of dollars in federal education spending over several decades, there has been no positive impact on student achievement, citing a 2018 study.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the subcommittee chairworman, rejected DeVos’ arguments that years of federal spending on education have failed to secure significant improvements in student achievement.

“The nation’s public education system, which 90 percent of our children attend, has witnessed significant progress for all groups of students over the last 30 years,” DeLauro said, citing improvement for 4th graders in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as one example and rising scores in general. “Where would we be without federal investments?”

Verbal Battles

DeLauro also sharply criticized the proposed block grant, which she said could lead to more homeless students and increased class sizes. (The proposed block grant would cut $4.7 million from the combined funding levels of the 29 programs.) DeLauro also said that while there is a place for charter schools, they represent a “parallel education system” that needs more accountability and oversight, citing recent inspector general reports.

The Trump budget would end $440 million in dedicated funding to help charters expand by folding it into the block grant. Some progressive education activists have sought to abolish that grant program.

But DeVos repeatedly denied that the budget proposal would cut funding from the programs in the block grant. She said that instead, states and districts would have the flexibility to spend on programs that they thought would help students the most, though she also conceded that Congress, not she, would set spending levels. The secretary also said that collapsing those programs into a single grant and eliminating the compliance required with “education earmarks” would save two million hours each year for educators, time that she said in the past “could have been spent on helping students learn and grow.”

“The federal government does not determine everything that’s important to us,” DeVos said.

She also rejected the idea that her school choice proposals were meant to hamstring public schools, at one point telling the committee that, “I’m not out to privatize anything.”

DeVos’ exchanges with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., typified the secretary’s running verbal battles with House Democrats about the budget and other issues.

Lee pointed out how she had asked DeVos’ department for information about two topics without getting it: racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions for preschoolers and the resegregation of public schools. And she criticized the department for announcing last year that it would stop collecting civil rights data about suspensions of preschoolers broken down by race, stressing that “these are babies” being denied opportunities.

“It’s going to mask the trends for out-of-school suspensions,” Lee said, adding later that “I cannot be nice when I ask about this, because this is serious for our black and brown students.”

In response, DeVos said that her department was continuing to work on providing that information to Lee and that those children would be better served by the changes proposed in the budget.

Wisconsin’s Pocan homed in on charter schools. After pointing out that he would not have been able to go to many private schools because he would have been bullied for being gay, Pocan asked DeVos about a report from the Network for Public Education that said a significant share of federal charter school grants had gone to charters that either never opened or closed down due to mismanagement or fraud. He also highlighted the IDEA charter school network, a recipient of federal charter grants, spending money on pro basketball tickets and planning to lease a private jet.

“You’re advocating for doing more Fs” by pushing the federal charter school aid, Pocan told DeVos. And he asked whether all that federal spending on charters, and the spending by the IDEA charter network, was appropriate.

DeVos called the Network for Public Education’s report “propaganda” and “riddled” with mistakes, stating that fewer than 2 percent of charter schools getting those grants didn’t open. Other observers have said there are significant errors in the study, but the network has defended it against criticisms, including on Feb. 27, the day of the hearing.

Asked by Pocan how many charter schools are failing, DeVos said she did not have a figure available. And she called the question about the IDEA charter network’s spending a “hypothetical,” drawing an incredulous response from Pocan. (Pocan was the House lawmaker who first publicly highlighted the Trump administration’s proposed cut to Special Olympics aid that drew a storm of criticism.)

“Charter schools are doing a great job for the families that are choosing them,” DeVos said.

Neither Pocan nor DeVos noted that the budget would fold the dedicated $440 million in charter school aid in question into the block grant, a proposal that has drawn the ire of charter school advocates.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as DeVos Grilled Over Ed. Budget at Hill Hearing

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Use Your 'Teacher Voice,' Jill Biden Urges in a Push for Political Activism
Voting in the midterms is a critical step educators can take to bolster democracy, the first lady and other labor leaders told teachers.
5 min read
First Lady Jill Biden speaks during the American Federation of Teachers convention, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Boston.
First lady Jill Biden speaks during the American Federation of Teachers convention in Boston.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Federal Federal Initiative Leverages COVID Aid to Expand After-School, Summer Learning
The Education Department's Engage Every Student effort includes partnerships with civic organizations and professional groups.
3 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks at an event on June 2, 2022, at the Department of Education in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks at an event at the Department of Education in Washington in June. The department has announced a push for expanded access to after-school and summer learning programs.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Restraint and Seclusion, and Disability Rights: Ed. Department Has Work to Do, Audit Finds
The Government Accountability Office releases a checklist of how the U.S. Department of Education is performing on a list of priorities.
4 min read
Flags decorate a space outside the office of the Education Secretary at the Education Department in Washington on Aug. 9, 2017.
Flags decorate a space outside the office of the Education Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. The Government Accountability Office has released recommended priorities for the Education Department that target special education rights.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Biden Administration Boosts Grants for Community Schools, Sharpens Funding Priorities
The Education Department will award $68 million through its Full-Service Community Schools program.
2 min read
First-graders Rhiannon Hanson, left, and Holden Ashbrook make fruit skewers in class at Lincoln Elementary School in Dubuque, Iowa, on Jan. 20, 2022. Project Rooted has partnered with Dubuque Community Schools for a pilot program in which it provides monthly boxes containing local foods and a project to first-grade classrooms.
First-graders Rhiannon Hanson, left, and Holden Ashbrook make fruit skewers at Lincoln Elementary School in Dubuque, Iowa. The U.S. Department of Education is providing grants to high-quality community schools that provide wraparound services like the nutrition programs at Lincoln Elementary.
Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP