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See Betsy DeVos’ Responses to a Key Democrat on Common Core, ESSA, Civil Rights

By Alyson Klein — January 30, 2017 8 min read
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The Senate education committee is meeting Tuesday to vote on President Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire school choice advocate, best known for her work chairing the American Federation for Children.

A broad contingent of civil rights organizations, educators, and advocates have come out against DeVos’ nomination. There’s a huge social media campaign to defeat her, and in-person protests across the country. At the same time, she has the support of Republican policymakers, like former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and even some Democrats and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

After a bumpy confirmation hearing, committee Democrats asked DeVos about 800 questions to flesh out her views on key K-12 issues. The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington, asked DeVos some 140 questions, and made the answers public. (You can read them here.)

Big takeaways: DeVos said forcing states to get rid of the Common Core State Standards would violate the Every Student Succeeds Act, which prohibits the feds from monkeying with states’ academic standards, and said she would comply with the law. During the campaign, Trump pledged to abolish the common core. DeVos also said she supports virtual charter schools, and sees them as a way to bring choice to rural schools. An Edweek investigation showed big problems in the virtual charter sector.

And on some issues, including test participation and the role of the department’s office for civil rights, DeVos reiterated or restated her commitment to enforcing laws already on the books—including ESSA—without offering significant additional detail. That didn’t seem to satisfy Murray, who wants to postpone Tuesday’s vote, to get more answers from DeVos on both policy and potential financial conflicts of interest.

So what else did DeVos tell Murray? We went through the answers so you don’t have to.

On the common core:

DeVos appeared to back away from Trump’s campaign pledge to get rid of the standards by acknowledging that’s not allowed under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which expressly prohibits the education secretary from telling states which standards they can and can’t use. “I will implement the statutory requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), including by adhering to the prohibitions on the Secretary interfering with decisions concerning the academic standards states choose to adopt,” DeVos wrote. “I believe in high standards of excellence and achievement and it is the job of states to set those standards.”

DeVos sat on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a common-core champion. But she isn’t a fan of the standards. When she was nominated as education secretary, she called them a federal “boondoggle.”

Civil rights:

Advocates have big concerns that the Trump administration won’t be as aggressive as the Obama administration in standing up for students’ civil rights. Murray asked a ton of questions on this topic. Here’s what DeVos told her:

  • Murray noted that the U.S. Department of Justice has had a lot of education complaints in recent years. She asked DeVos if she thinks there is a role for the education department’s office for civil rights in investigating discrimination complaints in schools. DeVos said, essentially, that she’d enforce the law, while offering few additional details. “The office for civil rights (OCR) is statutorily charged with enforcing civil rights laws in our nation’s schools, colleges, and universities,” DeVos wrote. “Unless that obligation is statutorily revised it remains an affirmative obligation of the department and the office for civil rights, which I will vigorously enforce if confirmed.” She didn’t go into extensive detail about what the OCR’s role might be.
  • Murray also asked DeVos how she would address disparities in so-called exclusionary discipline practices (like suspensions), between historically disadvantaged groups of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, and more) and others. DeVos said a safe learning environment is a priority and that she would work with states and districts on this issue.
  • DeVos also said she would support the Civil Rights Data Collection, which has uncovered disparities among racial and ethnic minorities and their white peers.

Special education:

In response to a question about whether students in special education should have to waive their rights to go to a private school, DeVos said some public schools don’t meet the needs of kids with disabilities. (More on this topic here.)

Charter schools:

DeVos has been criticized for her role in creating Michigan’s charter sector. Some education advocates, including some school choice proponents, say the state doesn’t allow for sufficient oversight of underperforming charter schools. DeVos told Murray it should be up to states and districts to craft their own charter laws. At the same time, she said, “I support high quality, accountability, autonomy, and transparency.”

DeVos did not commit to continuing to collect federal data that links charter schools to their management organizations. She said she would review that data collection.

Distance learning/Virtual charters:

DeVos was asked for her views on virtual charters. Murray cited an Edweek investigation that uncovered big problems in the sector. DeVos reiterated her support for the schools, saying they are a good option for kids in rural areas. Another Edweek series found that rural schools often lack the broadband capability to offer virtual courses.

On early-childhood education:

DeVos said she’d work with state and local leaders to support their efforts on this issue. She also said she’d review all of the programs the feds offer on early education, to see which ones are working. But she did not explicitly commit to strengthening the department’s office of early learning.


DeVos was asked whether she would allow federal authorities to arrest undocumented students at school—a concern of many immigration advocates, as explained this story. DeVos said Trump planned to come up with a solution for those kids that would “make us all happy and proud” but deferred the question to the Justice Department, which has jurisdiction over enforcing immigration laws.

On opt-outs and ESSA accountability:

Murray asked DeVos what she intends to do if schools don’t test 95 percent of their students, as required under ESSA. DeVos said she’d adhere to ESSA. And she summed up the language in the law, which is actually really confusing on this particular point.

“I will implement the statutory requirements of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), including ensuring compliance with the requirement that states must annually measure not less than 95 percent of students on annual reading and math assessments. At the same time, I will respect the intent of Congress under ESSA to defer to state and local laws and decisions concerning both parents’ determinations about whether their children participate in such assessments and state approaches to holding schools accountable where less than 95 percent of students or students within subgroups are assessed,” DeVos wrote.

ESSA says states—and individual schools—have to continue to test 95 percent of their students, just like under the previous version of the law, No Child Left Behind. But the law allows states to decide what happens in schools that don’t meet that threshold. (Under NCLB, going below 95 percent participation meant the school automatically didn’t meet achievement tartes.) And ESSA states to come up with their own laws affirming parents’ rights to opt-out, as Oregon has.

That confused a lot of folks. So the Obama administration put language clarifying how opt-outs are supposed to work in its accountability regulations, which were finalized late last year. Those regulations, though, have now been put on pause by the Trump administration. In response to a separate question, DeVos said she would review them regulations before deciding what to keep.

DeVos also essentially reiterated the language of ESSA in response to another question, asking how she would help states figure out what it means to have subgroups of students—like English-language learners or students in special education—that are “consistently underperforming” in a particular school, triggering interventions. She didn’t offer further details on how—or whether—she might flesh-out that provision of the law.

School funding:

Some are betting the Trump administration may seek to finance its proposed $20 billion voucher program using Title I grants for disadvantaged kids. Murray asked DeVos if she’d commit to keeping the Title I program’s intact. DeVos said she’d look at Title I in the context of the rest of the department’s budget. So that means DeVos and company could propose paying for the voucher program using Title I dollars. Importantly, Congress would need to pass a new law to allow Title I dollars to be used for vouchers. And that’s considered unlikely.


Murray asked DeVos if all students should have unrestricted access to a safe school environment, noting incidents of students who experienced bullying because of their real or perceived immigration status over the past few months. DeVos said she’s “opposed to bullying and harassment for any reason” and would work with First Lady Melania Trump to address the problem.

On vouchers:

Murray noted vouchers often don’t cover full tuition at a private school, and asked DeVos said she realized this, but noted that Pell Grants for low-income students—a bipartisan priority—also don’t often cover the full cost of college tuition. (DeVos did not mention that college students can take out federally subsidized loans to make up the difference.)

Other tidbits:

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