Betsy DeVos presented her Fiscal Year 2019 Education Department budget request to a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday. The hearing was sort of like last year’s contentious confirmation hearing all over again.
DeVos was presenting the Department’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, not last year’s budget appropriations which face yet another deadline this week, as the most recent continuing resolution winds down. Partisan gridlock in Congress and dysfunction in the White House have messed up the Congressional budget calendar.
Before the budget hearing, Education Week‘s federal education reporter Andrew Ujifusa warned us not to worry too much about DeVos’s new plans for FY 19: “The timing of DeVos’ testimony before the committee will be somewhat ironic, given that Congress has yet to approve final appropriations for fiscal 2018… Remember also that congressional appropriators haven’t been enthusiastic about Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget plan so far. The House of Representatives approved an appropriations bill last year that cuts the Education Department’s budget, but by significantly less than Trump’s blueprint. And the Senate appropriations bill for DeVos’ department approved by the chamber’s appropriations committee last year actually increased the department’s budget by $29 million. And crucially for DeVos, both bills left out her marquee school choice initiatives, aside from a very small increase for federal charter school aid. So don’t be surprised if lawmakers express surprise or displeasure on Tuesday that the fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 budget proposals are substantively pretty similar.”
DeVos’s budget ideas (see the Education Department’s summary and Andrew Ujifusa’s Education Week summary) for next fiscal year look a lot like the proposals from last year—many of them controversial expansions of school choice for which Congress has, in the past, chosen not to appropriate dollars. This year DeVos asks for $1 billion for an Opportunity Grants school choice program, seeks to increase the federal Charter Schools Program by $160 million, proposes to let states set aside five percent of Title I allocations for some kind of school choice, and adds to STEM grants. As she did last year, DeVos proposes to eliminate Title II grants for professional development for teachers, and seeks to eliminate the very popular 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program; Congress ignored both requests a year ago. DeVos’s proposed FY 2019 budget would maintain the current funding level—without any adjustment for inflation—for the Department’s large essential programs, the Title I formula to support school districts serving concentrations of poor children and special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. DeVos proposes to cut a $400 million Title IV block grant that school districts can use for counselors and cuts the budget for the Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Overall, reports Education Week‘s Ujifusa, “The budget proposed by the Trump administration would cut $3.6 billion from the Education Department, a 5.3 percent reduction that would lower the department’s total spending to just over $63 billion.” Two programs, Title I and IDEA, make up 44 percent of DeVos’s total FY 2019 budget request.
DeVos’s budget request reflects her well known priorities, but if the budget proposal is not surprising, the intensity of Congressional displeasure expressed on Tuesday was notable.
Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, attacked DeVos for weakening civil rights protections, a primary mission of the Department of Education. Ujifusa quotes Lee’s challenge to Secretary DeVos: “Lee said the proposed office for civil rights cut, combined with DeVos’ potential decision to reconsider the discipline guidance as well as Obama-era guidance on students of color in special education, revealed the secretary’s true position. ‘Your head is in the sand about racial bias and racial discrimination. You just don’t care much about the civil rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.'”
Reporting for The Hill, Niv Elis describes DeVos failure to respond to the questions of Rep Katherine Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts: “Rep. Katherine Clark… pressed DeVos nearly a dozen times to provide a clear answer on whether she would ensure that private schools receiving public funds through voucher-style programs would be forced to implement LGBT protections. ‘Where dollars flow federal law must be adhered to,’ DeVos said over and over, as Clark demanded a simple yes-no response. After nearly two minutes of back and forth, DeVos finally conceded that yes, adhering to federal law meant insisting on adherence to federal LGBT protections.”
The Hill‘s Elis recounts another interchange between DeVos and Rep Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat. Lowey “engaged in a lengthy exchange with DeVos about whether states or the federal government had the responsibility to provide parents with information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal program. ‘IDEA is a federal law, and where federal funds are involved in states, the federal government has a role. But this is a matter for states.’ DeVos said at one point during the exchange. ‘I don’t understand this,’ Lowey said in one of her many attempts to clarify the situation. ‘You’re saying it’s up to the states. You don’t have any leadership role in presenting the facts?'” The interchange is reported to have lasted eight minutes.
Elis reports another exchange between DeVos and Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, who demanded to know why DeVos is pulling Impact Aid—“funding support for areas that have large amounts of federal land, such as military bases and Native American Tribes. Those places, he noted, don’t contribute to the state and local taxes that largely fund schools. ‘I am concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.'”
And Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, demanded an explanation of enormous changes in regulations that protect people with college loans from unscrupulous practices of collection agencies and from for-profit colleges and trade schools, which— to collect more federal loan dollars—sell themselves to potential students by over-promising their curricula.
The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss highlights perhaps the weirdest interchange: “Betsy DeVos said something somewhat astounding Tuesday for a U.S. education secretary… She was… asked about several of her statements on 60 Minutes, when CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl… suggested the education secretary visit underperforming public schools to learn about their problems… During Tuesday’s House hearing, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) referred to that comment, saying, ‘You made a comment just recently that you haven’t visited any poor-performing schools.’ She responded: ‘As secretary, I have made a point of visiting school that are doing things creatively, innovatively, out-of-the-box thinking. Um, I think it would be important to visit some poor-performing schools. I think the question is, ‘Will they let me in?'”
Strauss continues: “To repeat, the education secretary of the United States asked if poor-performing public schools would allow her to enter. She wasn’t joking. That as much as anything underscores the tension between the public school community in the United States and DeVos, who in the past has called traditional public schools ‘a dead end.’ Critics—including some of the Democrat legislators who questioned her Tuesday—say she wants to privatize public education. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has spent decades working to promote charter schools and voucher programs, has made clear that her priority is promoting alternatives to traditional public schools. Her 2019 budget proposal seeks $1 billion in new funding for choice programs, including vouchers, which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition. Congress rejected a similar request from the Trump administration last year. DeVos has visited a variety of schools during her 13-month tenure as education secretary, including traditional public schools, charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated) and voucher schools. Though the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren attend traditional public schools, she has visited charters and private schools at a far higher rate than any other education secretary.”