Senate Dems hammer DeVos on proposed education cuts

Senate Democrats hammered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday as she tried to defend President Trump’s plan to cut $9 billion in education funding.

Members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee pressed her to justify proposed cuts to after-school programs, teacher training and federal funding to help students in need attend college.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) seized on the administration’s goal of saving $1.2 billion by cutting the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which supports the creation of community learning centers that provide after-school programs for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools.

DeVos argued for the cut by pointing out that fewer than half of the students who qualified are actually participating in the program, and those who do attend infrequently.

“That data may be true nationwide, but that data is not true in New Hampshire,” Shaheen replied. “So why are you going to make the students in New Hampshire suffer for the fact that there are programs in some places that aren’t working as well as they should? And isn’t that the department’s job to try and make sure those programs work the way they’re supposed to for kids?” 

DeVos said she thinks New Hampshire has the opportunity to support other programs that are working. 

“Again, there is plenty of flexibility in the other funds that are going to New Hampshire,” she said with a smile.

“Well, there’s flexibility if you have money, but if there aren’t dollars there, how can we support these types of programs?” Shaheen fired back.

The exchange was an example of the sharp rhetoric DeVos faced from the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies at Tuesday’s hearing, which was largely focused on the administration plan to spend $1.4 billion on a public and private school choice program.

Another fiery exchange occurred when Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) pressed DeVos to say whether that program would allow schools that receive federal funds to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

DeVos said schools that receive federal funds must follow federal laws, but Merkley said federal laws in this area are foggy, referencing the February decision DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions made to rescind Obama-era guidance directing schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. 

“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees,” DeVos said. “That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle.”

But Merkley pressed her on the issue of LGBT student rights.

“Is discrimination going to be allowed or not allowed under your understanding?” he asked.

He then continued questioning DeVos, accusing her of refusing to affirm that her program would ban discrimination based on students’ gender identity, sexuality or religion.

“Senator, that’s not what I said,” DeVos protested. “Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), meanwhile, wanted to know what protections would be in place to ensure taxpayer dollars aren’t padding the pockets of CEOs at for-profit schools participating in the school choice program.

“Whether it’s a for-profit-managed institution or a not-for profit, if students are achieving and parents are making those choices on behalf of their children, I think those are the better measures to be oriented around,” DeVos said.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) came to DeVos’s defense, saying he grew up in an innovative district that offered school choice.

“I ended up in a district way across town because my district allowed that. I had a great education experience, but my parents in a public school setting had a choice within the district of four high schools I could choose from, and I was allowed to do that,” he said. “I was the beneficiary of that.”

Lankford said the concept of parents being able to decide which school to send their child to within a public school setting doesn’t seem like a revolution.

“I understand some districts don’t want to do it and some states don’t want to do it, but that’s their choice,” he said. “What you’re saying is if you choose to do that, we’ll help you in that transition and allow parents to be able to have that choice. Am I correct on that?” 

“That’s correct,” DeVos said.

Lankford went on to call it shocking that lawmakers would even have to discuss whether religious liberties of students should be protected. He said the Department of Education recently decided for the first time ever to post online a list of all of the higher-education schools that have asked for a Title IX religious exemption.

“It was a new method I think to be able to basically try to humiliate schools to not ask for a religious exemption,” he said. “Is that something you’re going to continue?”

DeVos said it’s not likely.

“It doesn’t sound like it’s a necessary thing and it’s something that I will certainly look into,” she said.

Lankford said she should.

“If any institution asks for a religious exemption, that is something the law allows them to do and there shouldn’t be any way to publicly humiliate folks because they are following the law,” he added.