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Senators Hammer at DeVos on Planned Budget Cuts, Proposed Vouchers

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Washington

Senators had a clear message for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a budget hearing here Wednesday: Don't get too attached to your budget proposal.

Republican and Democratic senators on the Senate education appropriations subcommittee expressed skepticism about cuts and eliminated programs in the budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education. And Democrats sparred with DeVos over how the spending blueprint for fiscal 2018 handles Title I spending on disadvantaged students, and how a voucher proposal would handle issues of discrimination.

"This is a difficult budget request to defend," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the subcommittee chairman, told DeVos. And he said the elimination of formula-funded programs like the $2 billion Title II program for teacher training, and the $1 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that funds after-school, will be "all but impossible" to get through Congress.

The secretary also addressed the civil rights controversy raised last month by the department's $250 million proposal to fund and study the impact of vouchers. Last month before the House education spending committee, DeVos emphasized state and parent prerogatives with respect to voucher programs' legal obligations. On Wednesday, DeVos pledged that any private schools that would participate in the initiative would have to follow federal law governing special education. "Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law, period," DeVos said repeatedly.

She gave the same response to Sen. Jack Reed, when the Rhode Island Democrat asked her if a private school participating in a federal voucher program would have to take all students who wished to attend.

But Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., argued that DeVos' response left the door open for a federally backed voucher program to allow for religious discrimination and discrimination against LGBTQ students in participating private schools. He said the secretary essentially "refused to affirm" these protections. 

DeVos stressed that Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court must resolve questions about protections for those students: "This department isn't going to be issuing any decrees." She also sharply disputed Merkley's characterization of her views, telling the senator, "Discrimination in any form is wrong."

Need more background on this issue? See our story this week on how civil rights laws do and do not impact school choice programs. In general, it's important to distinguish areas where federal law is clear, such as racial discrimination, from where it is fuzzier, such as transgender students' rights. 

Blunt came to DeVos' defense on this issue, and criticized the Obama administration for trying to write federal law on its own: "That's the job of the courts and the Congress, not the Department of Education."

And in response to a question from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., about whether officials at private education organizations should enrich themselves off students, DeVos responded that what mattered was student performance, not the tax status of schools. 

Strings Attached?

As she did last month before the House education spending committee, DeVos defended the budget proposal's emphasis on choice. She said she believed in the power of markets to help parents make appropriate choices for their children, and said the budget eliminates 22 programs that are duplicative, ineffective, or could be better handled by states and local communities.

"The notion that spending more money is going to bring about better results is, I think, ill-advised," DeVos said.

The spending proposal from the president would cut $9.2 billion from the current Education Department spending levels, or about a 13.5 percent reduction. It's the largest proposed single-year cut from a president to the agency since President Ronald Reagan's spending plan for fiscal 1983—Congress ultimately increased funding for the department that year .

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said any agency budget proposal that asks for less money "is a fairly rare conversation around these parts." But he quizzed DeVos on how a Title I public school choice initiative was different than the Obama-era Race to the Top competitive-grant program that gave money to states in exchange for taking certain approaches to standards, teacher evaluations, and testing.

In addition to the $250 million voucher proposal and the $1 billion public school choice program under Title I that would follow students to schools of their choice, the Trump budget seeks a 50 percent increase to federal charter school grants, which would bring that grant funding up to $500 million. 

DeVos responded that no such policy strings would be attached to the Title I proposal, and that it would be entirely voluntarily. (So was Race to the Top, for what it's worth.) "It is in no way going to be mandated from the top," she told Lankford.

Fight Over Actual Funding Levels

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., meanwhile, slammed the proposed elimination of the $2 billion grant program for teacher development and class-size reduction, as well as the $113 million cut to special education and the elimination of the $400 million Title IV block grant for well-rounded education programs. (Murray is the ranking Democrat on both the Senate subcommittee and the Senate education committee.) 

"Your budget proposes policies similar to those that were roundly rejected on both sides of the aisle during our ESSA debate—like privatization and portability," Murray said.

Murray and DeVos also had a testy exchange about whether the proposed budget cuts the $15.5 billion Title I program designed to help disadvantaged students.

DeVos told the subcommittee, consistent with her agency's position since the budget was released, that the Trump spending plan keeps Title I and special education funding flat, saying, "The intention is to fully fund Title I." A new $1 billion Title I public school choice program would bring Title I spending up to $15.9 billion. 

But that claim is based on a previous spending resolution, not the current fiscal 2017 budget. Traditional Title I aid to school districts would be cut by nearly $600 million, down to about $14.9 billion, in Trump's budget. "We're going back to bad numbers," Murray said at one point when DeVos characterized the department's proposed spending levels.

In an exchange with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., DeVos expressed hope that schools in rural areas would take advantage of virtual learning programs to make up for the lack of diverse school choice options.

And in response to questions from Shelby and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., about the proposed $168 million cut to career and technical education grants to states, DeVos said such programs should be considered as part of broader changes to higher education in general.

"Right now we have a lot of efforts that really overlap," she said.

What happens to specific proposals in the administration's budget plan isn't clear yet, although the fiscal 2018 budget is due to begin Oct. 1.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the department, was not as openly critical as Blunt during the House hearing last month. He praised the spending plans' emphasis on choice and its increased spending on charter schools in particular. But he did not comment directly on the $250 million voucher proposal. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill on June 6, before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year 2018 budget.

--Susan Walsh/AP


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