Betsy DeVos has been on Capitol Hill in recent weeks trying to defend an indefensible, fiscal year 2021 Education Department budget proposal. She has testified to House and then Senate appropriations subcommittees, where members of Congress deserve credit for defending common sense and the common good by summarily rejecting what Betsy DeVos was trying to sell them.
In late February, DeVos appeared before the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Department of Education. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “DeVos defended the Trump fiscal year 2021 budget blueprint that would cut $5.6 billion from the U.S. Department of Education’s current budget of $71.2 billion and roll most federal K-12 programs—29 in total—into a formula-driven block grant… ‘What have we bought with all that spending?’ DeVos asked, before answering her own question that there were merely ‘sad results’….” Ujifusa continues: “But the most significant moment of the hearing perhaps came when Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, told DeVos: ‘We are going to reject this proposal.'”
Last week, DeVos went before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. Unlike the House, the U.S. Senate is dominated by a Republican majority, but that fact did not change the response of members of the committee to the proposal DeVos came to defend. The Hill‘s Marty Johnson quotes DeVos’s assessment of American public schools: “DeVos, in her opening statements… claimed that the new $19.4 billion block grant program would ‘unleash new innovation at the state and local level, and continue to expand proven reforms, including public charter schools, magnet schools, and student-weighted funding.’ DeVos also said that test scores have remained stagnant in the 55 years the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been in place, noting that the federal government has spent $1 trillion over the past 50 years.”
Education Dive‘s Jeremy Bauer-Wolf describes the response of the subcommittee’s chair, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO: “Blunt, who chairs the panel, told DeVos that lawmakers would likely not pass cuts….” Bauer-Wolf continues: “The White House four years running has put forward deep cuts to the U.S. Department of Education that Congress has rejected. Trump is seeking to reduce the agency’s funding by roughly 8% in the most recent funding package.”
Trump’s FY 2021 budget proposal for the Department of Education collapses 29 discrete federal programs into a single block grant including the Title I formula program that provides compensatory funding to school districts serving children in concentrated poverty. DeVos says the new plan would give states and local school districts the latitude to choose from the menu of 29 formerly separate programs. They could use it for 21st Century Learning Center after-school programs, civics education, arts in education, English language acquisition, full-service Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services, homeless education, gifted and talented programs, magnet schools, the startup of new charter schools or any of the other possibilities. A real problem is that by collapsing the programs into one block grant, the Education Department is hiding an overall $5.6 billion reduction in funding for the Department, a 7.8 percent decrease. At the same time DeVos is once again asking Congress to enact her Education Freedom Scholarships—a $5 billion tuition-tax-credit voucher proposal to the Department’s budget. She has proposed the tax-credit vouchers for the past three years as well, but each time Congress has ignored her request.
DeVos’s recent Congressional appearances have featured her standard rhetoric trashing public schools. She claims that federal spending has skyrocketed but student achievement, as measured by test scores, has not increased over the decades. Richard Rothstein addressed this myth in a 2011 brief for the Economic Policy Institute: “When properly adjusted for inflation, K-12 per pupil spending has about doubled over the last four decades, but less than half of this new money has gone to regular education (including compensatory education for disadvantaged children, programs for English-language learners, integration programs like magnet schools, and special schools for dropout recovery and prevention). The biggest single recipient of new money has been special education for children with disabilities. Four decades ago, special education consumed less than 4% of all K-12 spending. It now consumes 21%… American public education can boast of remarkable accomplishments in special education over this period. Many young people can now function in society whereas, in the past, children with similar disabilities were institutionalized and discarded. But it is not reasonable to complain about the increase in spending on such children by insisting that it should have produced greater improvement in the achievement of regular children. The increase in regular education spending has still been substantial… But in light of the actual achievement improvements documented by NAEP, it is not reasonable to jump to the facile conclusion of a productivity collapse in K-12 education. A more reasonable story is that spending has increased and achievement has increased as well. Perhaps we have gotten what we paid for.” Federal programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were launched as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These programs were designed to address the needs of groups of children historically left out and underserved.
On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss corrected DeVos’s allegation that NAEP scores have remained flat: “Not exactly. According to Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, the achievement gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students have been narrowing for decades—although unsteadily. It says: ‘White-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps have, in general, narrowed substantially since the 1970s in all grades in both math and reading. The gaps narrowed sharply in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, but then progress stalled. In fact, some of the achievement gaps grew larger in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Since the 1990s, however, achievement gaps in every grade and subject have been declining. As of 2012, the white-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps were 30-40% smaller than they were in the 1970s.’ ”
In the same weeks when DeVos was defending her Republican priorities before Congress, the prospects of Democratic candidates for the fall Presidential election have shifted radically. Now that the number of candidates competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has narrowed, an important challenge remains. Public education has not been an issue at the center of the political conversation this year, except at a December 14, Public Education Forum 2020, in Pittsburgh, where seven of the top candidates—including Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders—came before a convention center filled with teachers, parents, students, community organizing groups, and advocates to discuss how federal policy must be improved to support the nation’s public schools.
In contrast to Betsy DeVos’s allegation that schools have been wasting money with nothing to show for it, all of the Democratic candidates speaking in Pittsburgh acknowledged the reality documented in a report last year from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also documented that federal Title I formula funding, which supports school districts where student poverty is concentrated, dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.
On December 14, Senator Elizabeth Warren challenged the other candidates with the high bar she had set in her public education plan to quadruple the federal investment in Title I; to fund federally (as Congress promised in 1975) 40 percent of the cost for school districts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (currently funded federally below 15 percent); to transform 25,000 public schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools by 2020; to expand the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights; to expand federal funding for English language learners; and to end the federal Charter Schools Program that has, without adequate oversight, dumped billions of dollars into charter schools which have never opened or eventually shut down.
Every one of the candidates speaking on December 14 declared that underinvestment in our public schools has become the educational imperative of our times. Bernie Sanders and several other candidates committed specifically to tripling Title I, and every one of the candidates focused on what striking school teachers—in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago—have exposed: outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.
Not one of the candidates endorsed school turnarounds defined by evaluating schools by their students’ test scores, or punishing low-scoring schools with state takeovers, school closure or charterization. Nobody recalled No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top with nostalgia.
It will be up to us to keep the pressure on Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders to remember the commitments they made last December in Pittsburgh.