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DeVos, Democrats Wage War Over Budget Cuts, Students' Rights Under Vouchers

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Washington

Democrats sparred with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about the budget proposal from President Donald Trump that would direct $1.4 billion to expand school choice and sharply questioning her commitment to protecting students with federal vouchers from discrimination during a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Republicans questioned the education secretary more gently, focusing on special education and applauding the fiscal 2018 budget plan's emphasis on new resources for school choice. 

Democratic lawmakers pushed DeVos to explain why public schools wouldn't suffer and lose out because of a proposed $1 billion in new Title I for public school choice, as well as $250 million for a new research program to study the impact of vouchers on needy students.

"Quite frankly, this puts us on the path to privatization of public education," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the committee's top Democrat, in her opening statement.  

DeVos emphasized the state flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act, but pleaded for a narrower, more productive focus on students. 

"We're talking about students and their education," DeVos said during one exchange. "Instead we spend a lot of time talking about schools and systems."

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the subcommittee chairman, praised the budget's focus on "educational opportunities," and after the hearing said he liked the 50 percent increase for charter school grants up to $500 million. "I'm a big believer in charter schools."

But Cole didn't directly comment on the private school voucher plan or the $1 billion choice plan in Title I, and stressed he wasn't yet ready to pick "winners and losers" in the budget process. Cole also questioned cuts to GEAR UP and TRIO, two programs for disadvantaged students that deal with college readiness, in the spending plan. 

Trump's budget would cut $9.2 billion from the U.S. Departmetn of Education, or a 13.5 percent reduction, and eliminate or phase out 22 programs, including teacher development grants and after-school funding. Total department discretionary funding would fall to $59 billion. Congress will likely ignore much, if not most, of Trump's budget plan.

In question-and-answer sessions with Democrats, DeVos also said that it was up to states how to decide on the rights of special education students on scholarships or vouchers. But she didn't clarify whether she thought those students would have full rights under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act under any new federal school choice program. 

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., had a particulary sharp exchange with DeVos, trying to pin her down on when the secretary would consider discrimination by a school receiving federally-backed vouchers inappropriate. DeVos responded that states had the right to set up such programs, that there were no mandates around choice in the budget plan, and that parents' ability to choose was the paramount issue. "I am in any way not suggesting that students should not be protected," Devos also stressed.

But Democrats were unmoved.

""I'm shocked that you cannot come up with fone example of discrimination [where] you would stand up for students," Clark told DeVos. 

For more analysis of this exchange, check out our colleague Evie Blad's post from Wednesday about what DeVos did (and did not) say

The discussion called to mind DeVos' controversial exchange about special education during her confirmation hearing, in which she appeared not to know about the federal protections conferred by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Trump's budget also would eliminate $578 million from the current budget in traditional Title I formula aid for disadvantaged students, the single biggest stream of federal money for K-12, which would bring it to $14.9 billion. It also would make a roughly 1 percent cut to special education funding, bringing it to $12.7 billion. Those and other cuts also put a burr under Democrats' saddle.

"The budget cuts, if enacted, would impose real harm on students," said DeLauro. 

Specific Programs on the Block

Teacher development grants, after-school enrichment funding, and a new block grant for education technology and school health and safety are would be eliminated under Trump's budget, which would represent the largest single-year cut to the department proposed by a president since the fiscal 1983 budget proposed by President Ronald Reagan. 

Cole asked what impact a recent Supreme Court ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District would have on Trump's budget regarding IDEA funding. In that case, the justices said schools had to provide more than a "de minimus" education to students with special needs, 

DeVos responded that it was an issue she was following closely, but noted that if the federal government lived up to its statutory obligation for "full" IDEA funding, it would require bringing IDEA spending up to $30 billion, more than double what it is now. 

And the secretary also pledged to Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., that she would follow ESSA and not try to impose the Common Core State Standards on schools. She also urged schools to look at successful career and technical education programs run by states and districts and find ways to scale up and implement those.

But much of the hearing was dominated by Democrats' queries into the budget's plan to expand choice and cut other existing programs. 

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a fierce critic of vouchers, said in an interruption-laced exchange with DeVos that vouchers have failed in his home state in Milwaukee, and that the budget sought to scale up this failed approach by taking money away from public schools. DeVos responded that a Democrat, Polly Williams, helped start the Milwaukee voucher system (the first in the nation), and that thousands of children and parents were now participating in that system.

"Vouchers are just one mechanism" for promoting choice in the budget plan, DeVos said. "It is intended to help low-income kids, and it is intended to help give more choices to them and their parents."

She also defended eliminating the Title II teacher and principal development program, saying that it was spread too thinly, was often ineffective, and that additional flexibility elsewhere in the budget and in ESSA would help make up for it. But DeLauro and other Democrats argued that the cuts not only would harm local schools and imperil the teacher workforce, but that the flexibility DeVos cited wouldn't fill the gap, or that they were actually budget cuts. 

Read DeVos' prepared testimony to lawmakers here:

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, left, accompanied by Education Department Budget Service Director Erica Navarro, looks over her notes on May 24 as they testified before the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee hearing on the Education Department's fiscal 2018 budget. Carolyn Kaster/AP


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