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Five startling things Betsy Devos told (or wouldn't tell) Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Bloomberg photo by Zach Gibson

Does this sound familiar? Betsy DeVos went to Capitol Hill to testify before U.S. lawmakers. She didn't answer a lot of direct questions and engaged in some contentious debates with some members.

That happened in January when she went before the Senate Education Committee for her confirmation hearing, during which she said schools needed guns to protect against grizzly bears. This time, though, she didn't talk about guns, but she did say that states should have the right to decide whether private schools that accept publicly funded voucher students should be allowed to discriminate against students for whatever reason they want.

DeVos testified before the House subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies about the Trump administration's 2018 budget proposal, which cuts $10.6 billion - or more than 13 percent - from education programs and re-invests $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting school choice.

Both DeVos and President Donald Trump have said expanding alternatives to traditional public schools are their top priority, and during tough questioning from some committee members, DeVos doubled down on that as well as on giving states and local communities flexibility to do what they want with their education programs. It is worth noting, however, that she said recently that people who don't agree with expanding school choice are "flat Earthers," people who refuse to face the facts.

Most of the contentious conversation was between DeVos and Democratic members, but even the Republican chairman of the subcommittee, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, took gentle issue with her about cuts in a favored program of his, and another Republican questioned her about her claim that she was following congressional intent.

Here are five rather startling things she said - or wouldn't say:

1. States should have the flexibility to decide whether private schools that accept students with publicly funded vouchers can discriminate any students for any reason

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said that one private school in Indiana that is a voucher school says it may deny admission to students who are LGBT or who come from a family where there is "homosexual or bisexual activity." She asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana that it could not discriminate in that way if it were to accept federal funding through a new school choice program. Clark further asked what DeVos would say if a voucher school were not accepting African-American students and the state "said it was OK."

To Clark's question about whether she would step in, DeVos responded: "Well again, the Office of Civil Rights and our Title IX protections are broadly applicable across the board, but when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students . . ."

Clark interrupted and said, "This isn't about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana, that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars? Or would you say the state has the flexibility?"

DeVos said: "I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs . . ."

Clark interrupted, saying: "So if I understand your testimony - I want to make sure I get this right. There is 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 are going to use our federal dollars?"

DeVos said she didn't want to answer a hypothetical question. Clark said it wasn't hypothetical, and asked if she saw any circumstance that the federal government would tell a state that it could not allow a private voucher school to discriminate against students.

At that point time expired, but DeVos was allowed to respond.

DeVos: "I go back to the bottom line - is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children's schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don't work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus. And states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions."

Clark: "I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students."

The chairman of the subcommittee said she wasn't required to answer. She didn't and the discussion moved on.

2. States should have the flexibility to decide whether students with disabilities who are using publicly funded vouchers to pay for private-school tuition should still be protected under the IDEA federal law

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, discussed the federal Individual With Disabilities in Education Act, which provides federal protections for students with disabilities.

Lowey noted that in voucher and voucher-like programs in which public money is used to pay for private school tuition and educational expenses, families are often required to sign away their IDEA protections, including due process when a school fails to meet a child's needs. Lowey asked DeVos if she thought that was fair.

DeVos responded that it should be up to the states to decide how to run their own programs, and then she referred to a tax credit program in Florida, where tens of thousands of students with disabilities attend private school with public money. Florida is one of those states that requires voucher recipients to give up their IDEA rights.

"Each state deals with this issue in their own manner," she said.

3. High-poverty school districts get more funding than low-poverty schools

The reason the federal government has a funding program that is meant to bolster high-poverty schools - called Title I - is because state and local school funding in the United States mainly favors wealthier areas. Title I, however, does not equalize the playing field, and the Trump administration's budget is proposing using $1 billion in Title I funds for a school choice "portability" program, meaning there would be less money for traditional public schools. Congress rejected such a program during conversations in 2015 about the federal K-12 law Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., noted that the proposed education budget's Title I plan would reduce funding to high-poverty schools, according to numerous experts, and she asked DeVos whether she believes that high-poverty school districts should get "more funding resources" than schools with lower levels of poverty.

DeVos said, "Yes, I think the reality is that they do receive higher levels of funding."

Later, Roybal-Allard asked her more specifically about federal funds: "Just to be clear . . . you do agree that high-poverty schools should receive more federal resources than lower levels of poverty schools? Was that your testimony?"

Devos responded: "Yes, I think that this is the case."

Roybal-Allard said, "They don't," and continued to press DeVos.

In her first answer, the secretary said she believed high-poverty school districts do get more funding than wealthier districts, which is not true. In the second response, she said she believes high-poverty school districts get more federal funding than wealthier districts. That is not always true.

4. The administration is not shifting money for public schools in the budget in order to fund school choice experiments

It is. If there are cuts to public schools, and there is new money going to school choice, that can't mean anything else.

5. DeVos wouldn't say whether private and religious schools that accept students paying with public funds should be held accredited or held accountable in the same way that traditional public schools are

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., discussed a private school that took public dollars even though it said students could learn how to read by simply putting a hand on a book. He asked her if she was "going to have accountability standards" in any new school choice program.

Her response: States should decide "what kind of flexibility they are going to allow."

As noted earlier, Democrats gave her the toughest questions, but some Republicans didn't give her a total pass. Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) asked her about proposed cuts to a college preparation program called TRIO, of which he said he is a "big fan." Cole said it has produced 5 million college graduates and he has seen the impact in his district. He then asked her about the administration's proposed cuts.

She said that the parts the administration seeks to eliminate are "outside of the original intent of the TRIO programs."

Later, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, asked her: "If we fund those programs would they then be within congressional intent?"

She responded: "If that's how you define it, I guess they would be."

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