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Senate Democrats to DeVos: Your Budget 'Fails to Invest' in Public Schools

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Democrats slammed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Wednesday for proposing massive cuts to the U.S. Department of Education's budget, even as lawmakers—and the secretary herself—both acknowledged at a Senate hearing that they won't become a reality. 

President Donald Trump's budget plan seeks an overall cut of about $7.1 billion from the department's roughly $71 billion budget. It seeks to scrap $2 billion in state grants to improve teacher quality (better known as Title II), $1.1 billion in funding for the Student Success and Academic Enrichment grants (better known as Title IV), and just over $1 billion for after-school programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. There's also been intense, recent controversy over a proposal to eliminate nearly $18 million in funding for the Special Olympics. (Trump ultimately backed off the plan Thursday).

This is the third year in a row that the Trump administration has proposed all those cuts. And, for two years, lawmakers rejected them, even when both houses of Congress were in Republican control.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.,the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees education spending said at the haering that's likely to be the case yet again. "There are programs here that are unlikely to be eliminated in any final budget," he said. "My guess is the work of this committee will not be much different from the work of this committee last year."

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the education spending committee's ranking Democrat, said that DeVos still needs to answer for her proposed cuts, even though they are dead on arrival in Congress. 

"I always say that a budget is a reflection of your values," she said. "And given [that] your budget fails to invest in our youngest learners, fails students in public schools, fails students struggling to better themselves in higher education, and fails the student loan borrowers saddled with debt, this request speaks volumes about where your priorities lay and who you are fighting for as Secretary of Education."

DeVos rejected that. 

"I just want to be clear where my heart is," she said. "My heart is with all students. I want them to have opportunity."

And she said she knows that Congress has nixed her requested cuts in the past, and will again. 

"It's easy to keep spending, to keep saying yes, to keep saddling tomorrow's generations with today's growing debt," DeVos said. She noted that the U.S. still ranks near the middle of the pack on international  benchmark assessments, despite its spending. "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 students, freedom for parents, and freedom for teachers."

DeVos is shopping a new proposal to expand school choice, based on legislation introduced in the House and Senate. The program, called the Education Freedom Scholarships, would give individuals and corporations a tax credit for donating to state scholarship-granting organizations. That money, no more than $5 billion a year, could be used to finance private school vouchers, public school choice, dual enrollment after-school programs, early-childhood education, and more, depending on what states choose. (More details here).

Special Olympics Fallout

Lawmakers hit DeVos on the proposed cut to the Special Olympics, just hours before Trump backed off the plan. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked if DeVos "personally approved" the decision to propose eliminating nearly $18 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics."Whoever came up with that idea gets a Special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity," he said.

DeVos told him the administration had to make tough choices. She said she's a fan of the program, which promotes athletic competition and healthy living among people with intellectual disabilities, and has personally contributed to it in the past, but that it is private organization and can raise its own money. 

"I love Special Olympics myself," DeVos said. "Let's not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative."

The proposed cut in federal funding for Special Olympics represents 10 percent of the program's $150 million in total revenue. The rest comes from other sources, including donations. (In fact, DeVos has personally contributed to the program). 

This is the third year time that Trump and DeVos have sought to scrap federal funding for the program—and Congress has always rejected the proposal. In fact, Blunt said that he has no plans to axe its federal funding. But the proposed cut became part of a social media firestorm, thanks in part to a tweet from Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who asked DeVos about it at a House hearing Tuesday.

Cuts to Mental Health Funding

Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., hit DeVos for the proposed cut to Title IV, which districts can use to finance mental health, arts education, school safety, college-and-career readiness programs, and more. 

Murphy said that the money helps districts pay for key mental health supports for kids. "Suicide prevention programs are not just going to be automatically replaced by private dollars," he said.

DeVos told him money has been "thinly spread" and that her department asked for $100 million specifically targeted to school climate. But Murphy said that "comes nowhere close" to making up for the cut to Title IV.

Murphy also asked DeVos how her department plans to handle a recent court decision, which found that the secretary can't delay implementation of an Obama-era rule that would require states to use a standardized approach to figuring out if they have too many minority students in special education or if they're punishing them or putting them in restrictive settings more than white students. (More background here.) 

"It's a lengthy decision, and we're still in the process of reviewing it," DeVos told him. She didn't answer questions from Murphy, who wanted to know whether the department is now enforcing the Obama rule. He said he'd follow up.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. asked DeVos if she would be willing to support new infrastrcuture spending for schools. Reed is the sponsor of a bill that would provide some $100 billion to help fix up crumbling schools

DeVos said it's a "costly proposal" and that she'd rather expand school choice. "We're going to make more progress and have more gains in student achievement if students are able to find the public school that's right for them." But Reed argued that not every family has "infinite" choices and school construction needs are pressing.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin for the Associated Press

Can't get enough of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Check out some of our best coverage:


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