Democratic legislators pressed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in her first public testimony since a contentious confirmation process.
DeVos was answering questions on the White House budget proposal in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. The budget proposal has been criticized by some for making deep cuts to public education to fund school choice voucher programs such as those that DeVos promoted in her home state of Michigan.
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., questioned DeVos closely on whether or not the federal government would withhold funding from schools that discriminate, citing the case of an Indiana charter whose policy said it could reject LGBT students or students who come from families with LGBT members.
“For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” said DeVos when asked if the federal government would intervene to stop discrimination.
“There’s no situation of discrimination or exclusion that, if a state approved it for its voucher program, that you would step in and say that’s not how we’re going to use our federal dollars? There’s no situation where if the state approved it… you would put the state ‘flexibility’ over our students?” Clark pressed.
“I think a hypothetical in this case,” began DeVos.
“It’s not a hypothetical,” interjected Clark. “This is a real school applying for these dollars.”
“I go back to the bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them,” said DeVos. “We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits all approach.”
“I’m shocked you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students,” said Clark, as the committee chairman’s gavel was banging to signal her time had expired.
“To take the federal government’s responsibility out of that is just appalling and sad,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who then followed up Clark’s line of questioning regarding discrimination.
“I am not in any way suggesting that students should not be protected,” said DeVos in response. “The department is going to continue and will continue to investigate any complaints and any issues about allegations of discrimination.”
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., spoke about his belief that his home state served as an illustration of the “failure” of publicly funding vouchers for private schools. He cited Right Step Inc., a taxpayer-funded voucher school in Milwaukee, where only 7 percent of the students met English proficiency standards and none was at grade level in math. He asked DeVos if she would send her children to a school with those numbers. She avoided answering the question.
“It is clear to me you do not have the necessary understanding of our education system between this proposed budget and your comments referring to public schools as a dead end and public school teachers being in ‘receive mode,’” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
When Lowey asked whether children with disabilities taking private school vouchers would be protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), DeVos again said it would be up to states.
While mostly supportive of DeVos, even Republicans on the committee were skeptical of some aspects of the proposed budget. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the subcommittee’s chairman, told DeVos he had a “different point of view” from the administration regarding its plans for large cuts in college financial aid programs for low-income students.
DeVos’ confirmation earlier this year was the most contentious of Trump’s Cabinet. A billionaire who had given to Republican campaigns and super-PACS, DeVos’ January hearing drew a wave of constituent outreach to Senate offices across the country. During the hearing, DeVos seemed to not be familiar with IDEA, suggested schools might need guns in them as a defense against grizzly bears, did not understand a question referring to measuring proficiency versus growth and said no one in her family had attended public schools nor taken out federal loans.
Two Republican senators voted against DeVos, and Vice President Mike Pence was needed to break a 50-50 tie to confirm her.
“I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of education who has been so involved in one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she may be unaware of what actually is successful within the public schools, and also what is broken and how to fix them,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, when she announced her opposition.
DeVos has drawn criticism for the department’s proposed revamp of the student loan program. The head of the federal student loan program — James Runcie, an Obama appointee — resigned Tuesday night ahead of a House Oversight hearing on potential improper payments.
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