Special Education

DeVos’ Rocky Debut Before New Congress Features Budget Clash

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 09, 2019 5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at a House Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill, one of two hearings last month at which she defended the Trump administration's fiscal year 2020 spending plan.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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The proposal to eliminate $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics—withdrawn by Trump after several days of pushback—also highlighted the ongoing animosity toward DeVos that has lasted for more than two years after she was confirmed.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.

Repeat Performance

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

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
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
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
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

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

Special Education What Do Schools Owe Students With Disabilities? Feds Plan to Update Regulations
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Comments are open for suggested changes.
2 min read
A boy writes at a desk in a classroom.
gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty
Special Education L.A. Agrees to Do More After Failing on Special Education. Could Other Districts Be Next?
The district failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education found.
6 min read
Conceptual image of supporting students.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Source images: DigitalVision Vectors and iStock/Getty)
Special Education Protect Students With Disabilities as COVID Rules Ease, Education Secretary Tells Schools
Even as schools drop precautions like mask requirements, they must by law protect medically vulnerable students, a letter emphasizes.
3 min read
Image of a student holding a mask and a backpack near the entrance of a classroom.
E+
Special Education Hearing, Vision ... Autism? Proposal Would Add Screening to School-Entry Requirements
Nebraska legislators consider a first-in-the-nation mandate to assess all children for autism before the start of school.
5 min read
Image of a student working with an adult one-on-one.
mmpile/E+