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Guns Aren't a Focus of Federal School Safety Panel, Betsy DeVos Tells Senators

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told senators in a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill that the federal school safety commission she leads won't examine the role of guns in school violence, despite a prior White House statement that the commission's work will include examining age restrictions on certain firearms purchases.

"That is not part of the commission's charge per se," DeVos told lawmakers.

DeVos, who officially was called before the Senate subcommittee on education spending to discuss the Trump administration's budget proposal for fiscal 2019, also stated that she does not believe educators can refer undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That represents a shift from remarks she made last month, when she told the House education committee that schools could choose whether to report such students to ICE.

In the wide-ranging hearing, DeVos also defended the Trump budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education by stating that it sought to slim down or consolidate programs that haven't proven effective, while continuing her push—unsuccessful so far in Congress—to expand public and private school choice. She also touched on state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act and sparred with Democrats about her approach to the department's office for civil rights, countering their claims that she was improperly cutting staffing levels by saying that she was committed to conducting its work to protect students in an efficient manner.

'An Interesting Concept'

Much of DeVos' recent focus has been on the federal school safety commission she was appointed to lead by President Donald Trump earlier this year—she recently visited a school in Maryland to learn about behavioral intervention strategies, for example. "One of the most important things we can do is help others learn about what has been effective," DeVos told lawmakers.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., quickly zeroed in on the topic, and asked if the commission would be looking at the role of firearms in school violence. DeVos responded that it was not part of the commission's charge, stressing instead that it was focused on school safety. 

However, when Trump announced the start of the commission in March in the wake of the mass killing at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the White House said that the commission would examine "age restrictions for certain firearms purchases" among many issues, including "violent entertainment" and media coverage of mass shootings. (The commission is due to release its findings by the end of this year.)

Asked about this discrepancy between the White House and DeVos' remark to Leahy, a spokeswoman for the department said: "The secretary and the commission continue to look at all issues the president asked the committee to study and are focused on making recommendations that the agencies, states, and local communities can implement. It's important to note that the commission cannot create or amend current gun laws—that is the Congress' job." (The White House announcement states that the commission's job is to generate "recommendations" to improve school safety.)

DeVos also shied away from offering an opinion when Leahy he asked her whether she believed an 18-year-old high school should be able to purchase an AR-15 rifle in a matter of minutes, stating only that, "I believe that's very much a matter for debate."

"So we'll look at gun violence in schools, but not guns. An interesting concept," Leahy responded.

The secretary did make her position clear about another controversial issue she raised last month. In May, DeVos told the House education committee that schools could choose whether to report undocumented students to federal authorities, provoking a storm of protest from Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates. 

Under questioning from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., about her exact position on this topic, DeVos initially said, "I think a school is a sacrosanct place for students to be able to learn, and they should be protected there. ... I think educators know in their hearts that students should have a safe place to learn."

After Murphy repeatedly pressed her and wondered aloud why she declined to directly answer the question as to whether educators could call ICE on undocumented students, DeVos ultimately said, "I don't think they can."

Questions on Cuts

DeVos also defended the Trump budget against several criticisms from Democrats. The fiscal 2019 blueprint, released in February, would cut her agency's budget to $63.2 billion. That would be a $7.7 billion reducation from fiscal 2018 levels signed into law by Trump in March. The spending bill Trump signed represented a nearly wholesale rejection of the administration's fiscal 2018 proposals to cut the department's budget by more than 13 percent from fiscal 2017 levels. 

She got encouragement from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the subcommittee chairman, who told her that, "We should look at programs that are either inefficient or ineffective, and prioritize the programs that work best for students." However, he indicated that large formula grant programs would likely remain as they are.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sparred with DeVos over her staff reductions at the office for civil rights, and noted that Congress actually increased spending for the office in the fiscal 2018 spending bill Trump signed: "We're going to take fewer claims and protect fewer students. That really isn't how OCR is supposed to operate."

DeVos responded that the office's work had not deteriorated, and that, "We are committed to ensuring that the rights of every student are protected."

Democrats and DeVos have clashed frequently over civil rights issues. Murray and others have criticized DeVos for rolling back Obama administration guidance on transgender students, and for changing how the civil rights office conducts investigations. They've also warned her not to repeal Obama-era guidance on racial disparities in school discipline, which DeVos is current considering.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., among others, questioned the wisdom of the Trump budget blueprint's call to eliminate two programs: Title II, which provides $2.1 billion in federal aid for educators' professional development, and $1.1 billion in after-school funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs. Manchin stressed that such funding was useful for helping children impacted by opioid addiction for example, while DeVos stressed that other funding under Title IV could be used by districts in a variety of ways to support such work. 

And Manchin spoke for many Democrats when he rejected DeVos' pitch that rural states like West Virginia could benefit from new school choice opportunities, stating that among other things his state simply doesn't have internet connectivity in many instances: "We just can't afford to start another education system."

ESSA Issues

DeVos' handling of ESSA has also triggered debate on several fronts, including whether plans she has approved discount the performance of historically disdvantaged students such as children of color. 

However Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., came to her defense Tuesday when he asked her pointedly whether any state ESSA plans she had approved violated the law, according to Education Department lawyers; DeVos told him that all plans followed the law.

She was less clear when Alexander asked her whether she thought states' plans were "encouraging" in general, and specifically when it came to taking advantage of the law's increased flexibility compared to the days of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"The rubber will meet the road in the next year or so when the yhave it fully implemented," DeVos said, referring to the plans. "We have encouraged states to seize all the opportunity they have."

Previously, DeVos has expressed disappointment in how some states' ESSA plans have, in her view, been unambitious.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations hearing to review the fiscal year 2019 funding request and budget justification for the U.S. Department of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 5. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

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