Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ debut appearance before the new Congress was hijacked by a controversy over a small, but politically sensitive, piece of the $7.1 billion the Trump administration wants to slash out of the U.S. Department of Education budget in the coming fiscal year.
The proposal to eliminate $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics—withdrawn by Trump after several days of pushback—also highlighted the ongoing animosity toward DeVos that has lasted for more than two years after she was confirmed. Democrats and others said that the request demonstrated DeVos’ disregard for those with disabilities.
During a House budget subcommittee hearing March 26 and a Senate discussion two days later, DeVos stressed that while she personally supports the Special Olympics and had not personally lobbied for the funding cut, the current fiscal environment had required the administration to make difficult choices regarding which programs would receive federal aid.
She also feuded about the issue with Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who highlighted the Special Olympics funding cut during the House hearing; in a statement, she slammed what she called the “shameful and counterproductive” misrepresentations of the Trump budget request.
However, her stance was ultimately undercut by the president. In remarks to reporters March 28, Trump said he had “overridden” officials in his administration and stated that the Special Olympics would be funded. That about-face prompted Pocan to ask in a statement, “Can someone pull Betsy from under the bus?”
Although Trump can submit a budget request to Congress, it is up to federal lawmakers to decide which programs receive funding and how much. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Education Department’s budget, said that Special Olympics funding would not be cut in any spending bill he helps draw up.
Long-Term Quest for Cuts
Overall, the Trump budget for federal fiscal 2020 proposes eliminating funding for 29 separate programs dealing with literacy, the arts, foreign languages, Native Alaskan education, Javits Gifted and Talented Education, and others.
Aside from the proposed Special Olympics cut, the Trump budget also pitched less funding for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Gallaudet University (which serves the deaf and hard of hearing), and the American Printing House for the Blind. The Trump budget would maintain current funding in special education grants for infants through 21-year-olds at $13.2 billion.
Trump’s $64 billion 2020 budget request for the department would represent a cut of about 10 percent, the third year in a row the president has sought to shrink its budget. Capitol Hill rejected the past two Trump budget blueprints and in fact has increased department spending in each of the previous two fiscal years while also rejecting proposed initiatives to expand school choice.
However, the latest budget’s $5 billion pitch for a tax-credit system to promote educational choice represents something of a departure from those past proposals. For one thing, it would be administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. For another, the DeVos team has been keen to stress that the tax credits could be used on a variety of education expenses such as transportation, tutoring, and access to special education services, not just private school tuition.
In testimony before House lawmakers, DeVos argued the traditional educational system has simply not gotten the job done.
“Doing the same thing, and more of it, won’t bring about new results,” DeVos said. “I propose a different approach: freedom. This budget focuses on freedom for teachers, freedom for parents, freedom for all students.”
Republicans on the committee praised her dedication to choice and the $5 billion tax-credit blueprint, with Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., praising her “bold proposal.”
But Democrats were having none of it. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the House subcommittee chairwoman, labeled the budget request “cruel” and reckless. At one point she asked DeVos how an education secretary could support such a budget: “Why on your watch as secretary of education do you want to be complicit in shutting off public education opportunities?”
DeLauro also said the idea for tax credits was a shabby workaround for promoting unregulated private school vouchers.
Democrats on the committee also pressed DeVos on topics not directly related to the proposed budget, such as her decision last December to rescind Obama-era guidance intended to address racial disparities in the rates of student suspensions and expulsions.
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., questioned DeVos about whether she believed in research cited in the Trump administration’s school safety report (released shortly before DeVos’ decision to revoke the Obama guidance) that stated black children might simply be more inclined to cause disciplinary problems in schools than their peers. As she did throughout the hearing, DeVos insisted that students should not be subjected to discrimination based on their race or other factors such as national origin.
Lawmakers and DeVos stuck to several of the same issues during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Education Department appropriations two days after the House meeting.
“There are programs here that are unlikely to be eliminated in any final budget,” Blunt, the Republican chairman, told DeVos. “My guess is the work of this committee will not be much different from the work of this committee last year.”
Democrats decried Trump’s request to eliminate Title IV grants, which are intended to promote student well-being, school safety, and academic enrichment. DeVos told lawmakers that Title IV grants totaling $1.2 billion have been “thinly spread” and not shown to be effective, and she highlighted the administration’s school safety spending plan that totals $700 million across different agencies.
By that time, the firestorm over the proposed Special Olympics cut was burning hot, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., brought it up in blunt terms.
“Whoever came up with that idea gets a Special [Olympics] gold medal for insensitivity,” Durbin said.
DeVos shot back, “Let’s not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as DeVos’ Rocky Debut Before New Congress Features Budget Clash