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DeVos Says Trump Budget Means 'Freedom' in Education; Democrats Call It 'Cruel'

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Democrats, who now control the House, spent much of a Tuesday appropriations hearing talking over and past each other as they sparred over charter school spending, students' civil rights, and the $7.1 billion in cuts President Donald Trump wants in federal education funding. 

During an education subcommittee debate on Trump's fiscal 2020 budget plan for the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos once again pitched Capitol Hill lawmakers on a proposed tax-credit scholarship system to fund greater educational choice. She said many traditional federal education programs, such as those funding educator training, simply weren't getting results.

"It's easier to keep spending, to keep saying yes, and to keep saddling tomorrow's generations with today's growing debt," DeVos said. "Doing the same thing, and more of it, won't bring about new results. I propose a different approach: Freedom. This budget focuses on freedom for teachers, freedom for parents, freedom for all students."

And Republicans on the committee backed her up, saying that students should be free from public schools that don't serve their needs and teachers should explore their own, potentially more-effective ways to grow professionally.

But Democratic lawmakers merged attacks against the Trump budget request and previous DeVos policy decisions, arguing that both hurt students of color and would set back school safety, student well-being, and teachers' professional development. 

"This budget in my view is cruel. It is reckless," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the subcomittee chairwoman. "Why on your watch as secretary of education do you want to be complicit in shutting off public education opportunities?"

Democrats Take Charge

Tuesday's hearing was the first time congressional Democrats got a chance to interrogate DeVos while in charge of a committee. For  two years, they have made the education secretary a prominent political target, including in last year's midterm elections. They've criticized her record on everything from school choice and civil rights to federal spending priorities. 

The Trump budget request would cut the U.S. Department of Education budget for fiscal 2020 from just over $71 billion to $64 billion. It's the third year in a row the president has sought to slash the Education Department's spending. The past two years, Congress has said no. In fact, for fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019, lawmakers increased the department's spending. The president's budget plan would eliminate 29 federal education programs covering literacy, the Special Olympics, and other activities. 

The creation of Education Freedom Scholarships—up to $5 billion a year in the Trump budget request, or $50 billion over 10 years in tax credits the Department of the Treasury would make available—is the administration's signature school choice proposal. The tax credits could be used for special education services, transportation costs, and after-school programs, among other things. 

DeVos stressed that the Freedom Scholarships would be voluntary, and therefore "won't take a single dollar from local public school teachers and public school students." A few weeks ago, the Trump team stressed the passage of a tax-credit education program was "inevitable" and was designed to garner bipartisan support. And Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., supported DeVos' push for choice in the budget, telling her, "It's a bold proposal. ... I don't know of an example where a student has gotten a worse education as a result of taking an opportunity such as this."

But DeLauro blasted the plan as "unregulated, unaccountable, and an effort to fund private school voucher programs." In a similar vein, DeLauro spent much of her time highlighting a 2018 office of inspector general study of closed charter schools, as well as a new report from a public school advocacy group stating that $1 billion in federal funding has been wasted on charter schools that never opened or were closed due to mismanagement and other reasons. The Trump budget seeks $500 million in federal aid to charters, a $60 million increase from current funding, and Congress has agreed twice under Trump to boost that funding.

"Far too often, what we see is charter siphoning dollars away from public schools," said DeLauro. "They are operated privately. They do lack transparency." DeVos frequently objected, stating that charter schools are public schools. (Charter schools are often managed independently from traditional public schools, and are run by both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.)

When Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., asked DeVos what was being done about $1 billion in alleged financial mismanagement involving charters, DeVos said she didn't really draw the same conclusion, but would look into the matter. 

"The most important point of accountability are the parents who've chosen to send their child to whatever that charter school is," DeVos told lawmakers, adding that there should be more charter schools. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the full House appropriations committee, criticized the budget for seeking to cut $1.2 billion from federal after-school aid, the third time Trump has sought to eliminate this funding. Lowey and DeVos disagreed about the effectiveness of federal support for these programs. 

"Not only do you ignore racial and socioeconomic disparities in our education system, you support policies proven to increase the divide," Lowey told DeVos.

DeVos Grilled Over Discipline and Safety

Democrats made related attacks on DeVos for her actions related to civil rights and school safety—in her opening statement, DeLauro pledged to fight to keep federal money from going to arm teachers. Democrats have proposed legislation to that effect, but DeVos has not taken an official position on the matter. 

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., asked DeVos' why the Trump administration's Federal School Safety Commission report from last December called for the end of the Obama administration's guidance on school discipline that was intended to address racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. DeVos, who led that commision, rescinded the guidance shortly after the report came out.

DeVos responded with a refrain she used several times during the hearing: "No child should be treated or disciplined differently based on his or race or color or national origin. If or when they are, our office for civil rights will act swiftly, has acted swiftly. Children need to be treated as individuals."

"But they're not being treated as individuals," Lee shot back. "That's why we had this order put in place." (The Obama guidance was not a mandate, but warned districts about the potential consequences of racial disparities in discipline.) 

 Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., then cross-examined DeVos about the safety commission report's decision to cite research that found "school disciplinary rates may reflect the problematic behavior of black youth, problem behaviors that are imported into schools and into classrooms." She asked DeVos whether she believed black children simply presented more of a discipline problem for schools. The secretary responded again with the proposition that children should not be treated based on skin color, race, or national origin. 

The Trump budget would create a new $100 million formula grant program to improve school safety, bringing total department spending on national school safety activities to $200 million. But Democrats repeatedly criticized the budget for proposing to eliminate $1.2 billion in Title IV grants, which districts can use to support safer school climates and student well-being. DeVos responded that these grants were spread too thinly and had not been shown to be effective, even though the administration supported a $700 million increase for the program lawmakers agreed to last year.

Better Preparation for Teachers

The request includes $200 million for what are essentially vouchers for teachers to use on professional development. This money would be included in the Education Innovation and Research program, which currently gets $130 million and would get $300 million in the president's budget request.

This idea, new from the Trump team, combined with the administration's push to eliminate $2.1 billion in Title II funding for educator professional development, essentially shows that the Trump adminstration is skeptical of traditional funding streams for the practice and wants to put a smaller pot of money directly in the teachers' hands.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., praised this idea, saying, "As a physician, we do continuing medical education, but obviously it's going to be different for every person. ... A one-size-fits-a-few approach doesn't work for that, and I suspect it doesn't work for professional development for teachers." DeVos responded teachers "have very few opportunities and very little lattitude in how to do that."

However, some educators have questions or concerns about this pitch. And Democrats are strong supporters of Title II funding for teacher development, making the proposed elimination of the program a tough ask.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)


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