Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gets torched in budget testimony

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Betsy DeVos spoke at a House committee hearing Tuesday and received little quarter, even from ostensibly friendly Republican representatives.

With a few short breaks, the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education raked the secretary of education over the coals for nearly two hours Tuesday.

Sparks fly from both parties

Representatives on both sides of the aisle seemed concerned that the not-so-new department head Betsy DeVos hasn’t quite figured out how her role works yet.

Republican House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey popped into the meeting to advise DeVos that she should have stopped by his office before she ever set foot in the hearing room:

I say this very respectfully, you’ve been on the job for a while. I think sometimes people recognize the role of authorizing committees. But oftentimes, they don’t recognize the responsibilities of the Appropriations Committee. I would welcome an opportunity and a visit to my office to discuss a path forward …It’s hard to believe that people have been on the job for this long and they don’t have staff that are understanding how the system works.

Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking Democratic member of the Appropriations Committee from New York, shared similar concerns.

Lowey asked DeVos about a GAO report from earlier this year showing that some parents who moved their special needs kids to private schools through voucher programs had not been made aware that their children would lose public education protections or that special needs children statistically do worse in voucher schools than in public schools.

Lowey seemed perplexed by DeVos’s waffling answer:

DeVos: I personally agree that parents should be afforded the widest array of information possible. They need that when making decisions for their children. It is not a federal matter, it’s not a Department of Education matter. We certainly will recommend and encourage states to ensure that parents have all of the information possible for making decisions on behalf of their students. But it’s a matter for states to grapple with, specifically.

Lowey: So the Department of Education has not taken any steps to address the GAO recommendation? I’m a little puzzled.

DeVos: We are committed to following all the statutory provisions and we are doing so.

Lowey: Have you or your department encouraged the congressional leadership to work on this important issue?

DeVos: I think it’s an important matter for Congress to consider and encourage you to discuss it further.

Lowey: But how about your leadership? You’re head of the Department of Education. If you think it’s an important matter, have you contacted the Republican leadership and urged them to consider this real serious issue?

DeVos: Where federal funds and a federal statute are involved, the department is involved and committed to that.

Lowey: Look, I think we just have to be real with the American people and tell them that this administration, with your leadership, is selling, frankly, a false bill of goods and is an attempt to weaken public education in the country. So I don’t understand this. You’re saying it’s up to the states, you don’t have any leadership role in presenting the facts?

The other Republicans at the hearing largely used their time to softball the secretary (although Andy Harris of Maryland spent his complaining that people have often called him a racist), but the Democratic members laid into DeVos.

Rep. Barbara Lee from California attacked DeVos over her cuts to the department’s civil rights office and her apparent ignorance about racial disparities in discipline in public schools.

“First, I believe that this budget does decimate public education,” Lee said. “But let’s talk about for a minute, institutional racism and racial discrimination and what this budget says about students of color. For me, it’s a slap in the face.”

Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts had questions about the timeline of DeVos’s planned commission on school violence, emphasizing that there’d been another school shooting just that morning:

Clark: Who’s on the commission?

DeVos: The commission is going to be comprised of four cabinet secretaries: myself, HHS, Justice, and Homeland Security.

Clark: Is that it? Just four cabinet secretaries? No experts? No Democrats? …Will you have any students? Apparently not as commission members, but you’ll be inviting students?

DeVos: Not as members of the commission. As I said, this is an urgent matter and we want to ensure that we’re able to move and operate as quickly as possible without getting bogged down in a lot of bureaucracy.

Clark: So you think the first meeting will happen by mid-April? When do you plan to conclude this?

DeVos: The timeline is still being worked out, but rest assured we have a very keen sense of urgency around the work of this commission and the necessity of really —

Clark: How are are you defining urgency? You must have some timeline in your head for this.

DeVos: I do.

Clark: What is that? What do you think? You’re the leader.

DeVos: We’re still working out the details with the administration.

Clark: Okay, so urgency, but you haven’t begun.

DeVos’s problems run deeper

As harsh as the representatives’ treatment was and as poor as DeVos’s responses were, it was her more composed answers that were the most worrying.

DeVos said in her opening statement that the role of the Department of Education was to “prohibit federal control of education,” adding that she takes that role “very seriously.”

That is, in fact, not the role of the department and appears nowhere either on its website or in the law that established it.

The department’s mission, under the law, is to “strengthen the federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual.”

Once you realize that DeVos doesn’t understand her job, then her performance at this hearing — and the budgets she’s requested, which would have cut the department by 5.3 percent this year and 13.5 percent last year — begins to make more sense.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin hammered DeVos over an apparent, repeated discrepancy in her testimony.

DeVos emphasized states’ rights and continually asserted that the federal Department of Education would only involve itself in areas where federal dollars or programs were concerned.

She stuck to that line as long as it squared with a pro-charter, pro-voucher agenda. When it conflicted, DeVos seemed to assert that the department had no role at all:

Pocan: There are [in Wisconsin] 26 choice schools, which I know you’re a big advocate for, that are performing way below the standards and level they’re supposed to. So I would love to meet you in Wisconsin, and, you know, one of them that ranks the lowest recently said, “We don’t let people in our building” and they’re the lowest of 121 schools in the Milwaukee area. I would love to go to one of those with you, because I have seen the problems in my state.

We have 140 voucher schools statewide that couldn’t be rated because they wouldn’t provide the information. Do you think that’s right, that the state of Wisconsin, as much as you want to give the state rights, can’t even get the information from schools that are ultimately getting federal dollars because they are a choice program?

DeVos: Congressman, Wisconsin has legislated their program and accountabilities —

Pocan: Do you think it’s right, is the question.

DeVos: I think parents —

Pocan: Do you think it’s right?

DeVos: I think parents and taxpayers —

Pocan: I’m just asking for your —

DeVos: I think parents and taxpayers need to have more information, not less. The goal of this administration and this department is to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity —

Pocan: So I’m gonna take it that you think they should have to report, is that fair?

DeVos: I have been focused on ensuring that children and students and parents have the opportunities to make the right education decision for them and I support those parents in Wisconsin who have made choices for their children. I’m not going to comment on the Wisconsin method of reporting and accountability.

DeVos seemed to imply that she had no leadership role in U.S. education, time and again deferring not just to states but to Congress in her testimony.

While responding to Lowey’s ongoing questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), DeVos insisted over and over that the Department of Education’s only duty was to execute laws, not to provide any other kind of leadership or initiative:

Lowey: I just want to make sure I understand. What about the IDEA program? Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for this as long as I can remember.

DeVos: IDEA is a federal law, and where federal funds are involved in states, if they are, the federal government has a role. The report and the situation to which you referred are really matters of states. I agree with you —

Lowey: Wait —

DeVos: I agree with you that parents should have information and should have the fullest amount of information when making a decision for their child with a disability. But it is a state matter and a state issue.

Lowey: Even though we’re providing federal funding? …You have no obligation to parents to let them know that they can make a better choice?

DeVos: We absolutely have an obligation to follow the statutes of IDEA. The department does that, the department is doing that, and the department will continue to do that.

Lowey: What does that mean?

DeVos: Follow federal law as it relates to education of children with disabilities.

Lowey: So if parents who don’t have all the information who have a child who needs this help choose to go to a school that doesn’t provide these services, your reaction is, “Okay, they made that decision.” I think that’s what you’re saying.

Replying to a softball question from Republican Rep. Jaime Beutler of Washington about how to make more students aware of dual enrollment programs, DeVos said that states would have to take care of that:

Beutler: I wanted to ask what can your department do to make sure that the students are made aware of these opportunities?

DeVos: We have been following through on Congress’s intent in the ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] legislation to ensure that a lot of the funding programs through ESSA are made more flexible, and there is a great opportunity for schools to seize this particular direction and to build upon it. I believe it’s really up to the states to ensure that they communicate these opportunities to students.

Even when Clark got fed up and told DeVos that “we’re moving beyond platitudes” when it comes to school gun violence, DeVos continued to give the impression that neither she nor the department she runs have any role in U.S. schools.

Clark asked DeVos why, if she was serious about fighting violence in schools, the proposed budget made such steep cuts to enrichment and after-school programs:

Clark: We have students’ lives on the line. Have you re-thought your elimination of the student support and enrichment grants that specifically go to violence in our schools and help students deal with that?

DeVos: As you know, this budget was presented several months ago —

Clark: Is that a no? You have not re-thought that?

DeVos: As you know, the budget was presented several months ago. Our current scenario suggests that we should revisit this again and I would welcome Congress’s doing so and supporting this initiative around ensuring schools have the resources that they need to help keep —

Clark: So you will take a leadership role in undoing the elimination of those critical mental health programs for students?

DeVos: I support Congress’s re-addressing this.

The same was true when Rep. Lucille Roybal Allard, a Democrat from California, asked DeVos about cuts to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

“I would encourage Congress to revisit this program if you all believe it’s a good program,” DeVos responded.

DeVose seems to feel that sometimes education is the job of the states, sometimes it’s the job of parents, and if it works out in favor of vouchers and charters, then it’s the job of the federal government.

But whenever it comes to actually advancing the quality and equality of education in the U.S., it seems to be anyone’s job but that of the secretary of education.

Every time DeVos speaks on camera, she confirms and re-confirms that she’s the worst possible person to be heading the Department of Education.

She’s an ideologue who not only appears to be totally incompetent to execute the job she’s got, but also totally misunderstands the role of the department itself.

DeVos and her allies in the Trump administration are determined to undermine the public school system and turn education over to religious institutions and profit-seeking corporations.

The only positive thing you can say about the situation is that at least DeVos is not subtle or clever as she goes about it.