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Three Things to Watch for When DeVos Defends Trump’s Budget to Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 24, 2019 4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles education issues.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is about to have a busy week on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, DeVos is testifying before the House appropriations subcommittee that decides how much money the Department of Education will get in the upcoming fiscal year. On Thursday, she’ll repeat the process with the corresponding Senate subcommittee. DeVos will be there to defend the budget request from Trump, who wants to cut funding for the department by 10 percent, or about $7 billion in fiscal 2020. It’s the third straight time the president has proposed slashing the department’s budget.

But there’s a twist this time. Unlike the two previous occasions DeVos has defended Trump’s budget requests in the House, this year Democrats control the subcommittee. So DeVos, along with participants and observers, can expect a markedly different experience than when Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., ran the subcommittee in 2017 and 2018. (Remember, Republicans still control the Senate, and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., still controls the Senate subcommittee on education appropriations.) But what can we expect in the new political landscape? Here are a few things to keep an eye on.

1) Higher Education and K-12 Will Compete for the Spotlight

The House hearing will be run by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the subcommittee chairwoman, who is no fan of DeVos. For two years, DeLauro and other Democrats have simmered as DeVos and Trump have tried to slash Education Department spending, even though Republicans running Congress ultimately turned aside those efforts both times. So they’ll be eager to go on the attack.

But don’t expect all of the testy back-and-forth between DeVos and the Democrats to be about elementary and secondary schools. On the contrary, with a good deal of talk about revamping the Higher Education Act swirling its way around Washington, you can expect several questions from Democrats about how the Trump budget—as well as other moves by the administration recently—would impact colleges and universities. DeLauro told the Associated Press earlier this year that she plans to hold DeVos’ feet to the fire about for-profit colleges and student borrowers.

Some higher education issues Democrats could raise, like Trump’s proposal to eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness, would have links to K-12 education, since teachers are eligible for the program. Others, like an executive order about free speech on college campuses that the president unveiled Thursday, as well as Trump’s push to have higher education get “skin in the game” regarding college costs, wouldn’t directly involve K-12.

2) Expect Cuts and School Choice to Come Up

Not surprisingly, Democrats have already spoken out against the budget request’s proposal to eliminate a total of 29 programs at the Education Department.

So you might hear a string of questions from Democrats about the attempt by Trump and DeVos to toss out programs covering educator training, programs for academic enrichment and student wellness, and after-school initiatives, among several others. The Trump administration has repeatedly made the case that these programs are duplicative or better-handled by states and school districts.

You can also expect Democrats, and Republicans for that matter, to raise the budget’s proposal to use $5 billion in federal tax credits to fund private school scholarships (or $50 billion over 10 years). Along with a pitch to allow $200 million in federal funds be used for teacher professional-development vouchers, the Trump administration is trying to be creative about how it can support educational choice writ large. (DeVos has pitched the tax credits in Iowa and elsewhere.) The DeVos team also thinks its proposals can get bipartisan support. Let’s see if Democrats show any inclination to go along. The odds are pretty decent that Republicans will praise her dedication to school choice and her willingness to trim fat from an agency that they saw as far too aggressive under the Obama administration.

Remember, in the past Blunt has spoken critically in public about Trump’s overall approach to the education budget, calling the president’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint “a difficult budget request to defend.”

3) School Safety and Discipline Could Make an Appearance

The education secretary caused an uproar among Democrats and some civil rights groups last December, when she repealed Obama-era guidance about school discipline. In short, DeVos and her team said the guidance was too burdensome for educators and could negatively affect school safety, while supporters of the guidance said it helped protect students of color from being disproportionately hurt by things like suspension and expulsions.

On a related note: DeVos repealed that guidance on the recommendation of Trump’s school safety commission (which she led). DeVos also made waves last year over how she handled the idea of letting Title IV money under the Every Student Succeeds Act pay for arming teachers. Ultimately, DeVos said she would take no position on Title IV money going to firearms. But Democrats might revist that story in order to hammer home their views about gun control.