Hedging on Student Discrimination, DeVos Alarms at Budget Hearing

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, joined by Education Department Budget Service Director Erica Navarro, testifies on May 24, 2017, before the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee hearing on the Education Department’s fiscal 2018 budget. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Ruffling Democratic feathers in her first congressional appearance as education secretary, Betsy DeVos refused to say Wednesday whether private schools should lose federal dollars for voucher programs if they are found to discriminate.

During a House Appropriations hearing on the Department of Education budget, which proposes $9.2 billion in funding cuts to public education programs, DeVos stressed that no family should be stuck with schools that are not meeting their children’s needs.

School choice would give parents more latitude over their children’s educations, DeVos explained, calling states and local school districts better equipped to decide a range of issues.

That includes how to address mental health and suicide prevention, and whether the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act will protect special-needs students who get school vouchers. 

Though Republicans had some reservations about the education cuts, including cuts to college financial aid and work-study programs, most commended DeVos for her focus on school choice.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, accompanied by Education Department Budget Service Director Erica Navarro, looks over her notes on May 24, 2017, as they testified before the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee hearing on the Education Department’s fiscal 2018 budget. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., cheered the secretary for her work developing charter schools. Cole is the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

But in a heated exchange with Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., DeVos stumbled to define her limit on state flexibility if schools discriminate against certain groups, for example LGBTQ students.

When DeVos reiterated her belief in school choice — saying states will set up the rules and allocate fund for their programs — Clark characterized that response as a “no” and pushed DeVos to clarify.

“I want to make sure I get this right,” Clark said. “There’s no situation of discrimination or exclusion that if a state approved it for its voucher program that you would step in and say that’s not how we’re going to use our federal dollars?”

DeVos responded: “The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions.”

A one-size-fits-all, top-down approach is not working, she said.

“States and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions,” she continued before Clark interrupted her.

“I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students,” Clark responded.

Democrats, including Rep. Barbara Lee, were quick to follow up on Clark’s charge, saying the head of the federal agency responsible for education should be willing to defend school children against discrimination.

“I could not go to public school, madam secretary,” said Lee, who is black. “And so for you to sit here and say, as our secretary, that it’s okay if parents and local communities can discriminate – it’s very sad, shocking and disappointing.”

During her exchange with the California Democrat, DeVos said the Department of Education would not retreat from civil-rights protections.

“I want to be very clear, I am not in any way suggesting that students should not be protected and not be in a safe and secure and nurturing learning environment,” DeVos said. “They all should have that opportunity.”

DeVos said she has continued to talk about the need for all students to have access to that kind of environment in her role as secretary of education.

“The department is going to continue and will continue to investigate any complaints or any issues surrounding allegations of discrimination,” she continued. “We have no proposal to change any of that.”

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal would slash $10.6 billion from the federal education budget, a 13.5 percent cut. That includes $1.2 billion for an after-school program and $2.3 billion for class-size reduction and teacher-training programs.

The budget proposal would reinvest $1.4 billion into school-choice programs, which would include $250 million for vouchers for students to attend private schools, with another $167 million going to charter schools, which DeVos created lobbying groups to support before assuming public office.

DeVos defended the numbers in her opening remarks, giving short shrift to their negative public reception.

“This budget refocuses the department on supporting states and school districts in their efforts to provide high-quality education to all our students,” she said.

In closing remarks, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut challenged that assertion, calling the budget cruel, inhuman and heartless.

“I am going to fight this budget, Mr. Chairman, with every fiber of my body, because it is wrong to do this to our kids,” DeLauro said.

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