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At Heated Budget Hearing, Betsy DeVos Denies Seeking to 'Privatize' Education

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In a contentious hearing about President Donald Trump's education budget proposal that at one point became very personal, House Democrats said the plan would cut funding from key programs and fail to provide civil rights protections to students, while U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos argued that its proposed block grant would provide states and school districts more flexibility to better serve student needs.

Lawmakers and DeVos also clashed about charter schools, school resegregation, and school discipline during Wednesday's hearing in a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department's budget.

DeVos defended the Trump fiscal year 2021 budget blueprint that would cut $5.6 billion from the U.S. Department of Education's current budget of $71.2 billion and roll most federal K-12 programs—29 in total—into a formula-driven block grant. DeVos said it would mark a positive departure from the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on public schools over several decades through long-standing approaches.

"What have we bought with all that spending?" DeVos asked, before answering her own question that there were merely "sad results" and highlighting recent results on a national exam. The secretary said the nation spends about $860 billion on K-12 education each year; recent statistics for public school spending from the National Center for Education Statistics put the figure at much lower than that. 

After an intense exchange in the hearing over whether there were safeguards against discrimination in the administration's Education Freedom Scholarships proposal to boost school choice using $5 billion in tax credits, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., concluded her remarks by calling on DeVos to resign.

"Your inability to say that you would stand up for kids is appalling," Clark said. Her office quickly shared the moment on social media, recalling last year's viral furor over Trump's proposal to cut federal Special Olympics aid that the president ultimately backed away from. 

And during an interrogation of DeVos over federal grants to help charter schools expand, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., raised the idea that DeVos might have a conflict of interest in defending the grants because her husband Dick DeVos Jr. founded a charter school, a suggestion that DeVos forcefully denied. That aviation-focused charter school, which DeVos stressed her husband founded but does not run, operates as a nonprofit and is overseen by a nonprofit board; more on that charter school here

Republicans mostly encouraged DeVos and her focus on choice as well as the budget's proposed increase for career and technical education, which has been a bipartisan priority. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the subcommittee's top Republican, said he didn't agree with some elements of the block grant, but praised her willingness to depart from orthodoxy: "You've never been afraid to put a bold idea on the table and advance it." He also noted that DeVos was defending a budget plan developed by the administration's Office of Management and Budget and not her department. 

But the most significant moment of the hearing perhaps came when Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, told DeVos: "We are going to reject this proposal."

The comment underscored Trump and DeVos have sought cuts to the Education Department's for four straight years; in the last three spending bills approved by Congress, lawmakers have given slight increases to the agency's overall budget and rejected signature K-12 choice initiatives from the White House, including a past proposal for a new grant under Title I.

The disagreements became pointed enough at the hearing for Republicans on the committee to criticize how DeVos was being treated. And the arguments echoed past years' spending scraps over how DeVos has handled the intersection of school choice and civil rights, with Democrats pressing her on whether she was leaving vulnerable students in the lurch and DeVos countering that parents and students are demanding more choices, while also stressing that the department does not support discrimination.

Charter Schools, Resegregation, and School Discipline

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the subcommitee's chairwoman, set the tone for the hearing when she rejected DeVos' frequent comments that despite trillions of dollars in federal education spending over several decades there has been no positive impact on student achievement, citing a 2018 study.

"The nation's public education system, which 90 percent of our children attend, has witnessed significant progress for all groups of students over the last 30 years," DeLauro said, citing improvement for 4th graders in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as one example and rising scores in general. (More on that here). "Where would we be without federal investments?"

DeLauro also sharply criticized the proposed block grant, which she said could lead to more homeless students and increased class sizes. (The proposed block grant would cut $4.7 million from the combined funding levels of the 29 programs.) DeLauro also said that while there is a place for charter schools, they represent a "parallel education system" that needs more accountability and oversight, citing recent inspector general reports.

The Trump budget would end $440 million in dedicated funding to help charters expand by folding it into the block grant. Some progressive education activists have sought to abolish this grant program.

But DeVos repeatedly denied that the program the budget proposal would cut funding from programs, and said that instead, states and districts would have the flexibility to spend on programs that they thought would help students the most (though she also conceded that Congress would set spending levels, not her). She also said that collapsing these programs into a single grant and eliminating the compliance required with "education earmarks" would save 2 million hours each year for educators, time that she said in the past "could have been spent on helping students learn and grow."

"The federal government does not determine everything that's important to us," DeVos said.

She also rejected the idea that her school choice proposals were meant to hamstring public schools, at one point telling the committee that, "I'm not out to privatize anything." 

DeVos' exchanges with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., typified the secretary's running verbal battles with House Democrats about the budget and other issues. Lee pointed out how she had asked DeVos' department for information about two topics without getting it: racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions for preschoolers, and the resegregation of public schools. And she criticized the department for announcing last year that it would stop collecting civil rights data about suspensions of preschoolers broken down by race, stressing that "these are babies" being denied opportunities. 

"It's going to mask the trends for out-of-school suspensions," Lee said, adding later that "I cannot be nice when I ask about this, because this is serious for our black and brown students." 

In response, DeVos said her department was continuing to work on providing that information to Lee, and that those children would be better served by the changes proposed in the budget. 

Pocan honed in on charter schools. After pointing out that he would not have been able to go to many private schools because he would have been bullied for being gay, Pocan asked DeVos about a report from the Network for Public Education that stated a significant share of federal charter school grants had gone to charters that either never opened or closed down due to mismanagement or fraud. He also highlighted the IDEA charter school network, a recipient of federal charter grants, spending money on pro basketball tickets and planning to lease a private jet

"You're advocating for doing more Fs" by pushing the federal charter school aid, Pocan told DeVos. And he asked whether all this federal spending on charters, and the spending by the IDEA charter network, was appropriate. 

DeVos called the Network for Public Education's report "propaganda" and "riddled" with mistakes, stating that fewer than 2 percent of charter schools getting those grants didn't open. Other observers have said there are significant errors in the study, but the NPE has defended it against criticisms, including on Thursday.

Asked by Pocan how many charter schools are failing, DeVos said she did not have a figure available. And she called the question about the IDEA charter network's spending a "hypothetical," drawing an incredulous response from Pocan. (Pocan was the House lawmaker who first publicly highlighted the Trump administration's proposed cut to Special Olympics aid that drew a storm of criticism.) 

"Charter schools are doing a great job for the families that are choosing them," DeVos said. 

Neither Pocan nor DeVos noted that the budget would fold the dedicated $440 million in charter school aid in question into the block grant, a proposal that has drawn the ire of charter school advocates.

Photos from left: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks to a House subcommittee about the President Donald Trump's fiscal 2021 budget proposal; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., address DeVos during the hearing. (Graeme Sloan/Education Week; diptych by Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)


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