Dems berate Betsy DeVos at heated Capitol Hill hearing, Moolenaar defends her

By: - February 27, 2020 2:47 pm

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks with state and local leaders from Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Thursday, October 3, 2019. | Official White House Photo by Stephanie Chasez via Flickr Public Domain

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats tore into the President Trump administration’s annual budget request for the Department of Education at a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The administration’s proposal to slash the department’s budget in the next fiscal year is dead on arrival and amounts to an effort to privatize public education, they said.

The target of their ire was U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a West Michigan billionaire who testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

DeVos defended the proposal, saying that spending more money on education will not improve U.S. students’ lackluster academic performance, but that freedom and local control would.

“I’m not out to privatize anything about education,” she said. “I’m out to make sure every student’s education is personalized, individualized for them.”

Maryland Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris backed her up. “Some people would suggest that repeating the same thing that doesn’t work is insanity,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing in the United States.”

Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) disputed the “false premise” that public schools are failing despite federal investments in them.

“Contrary to your claims, the nation’s public education system … has witnessed significant progress of all groups of students over the last 30 years,” she said. While acknowledging disparities in outcomes across different populations, she cited gains in math and reading scores according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Almost 57 million students attend primary and secondary schools in the United States, 90% of whom are in public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The solution is not less resources, nor is it more privatization,” she said.

$6 billion cut

Overall, the Trump administration is seeking to cut the department’s total funding by $6 billion in Fiscal Year 2021, a reduction of almost 8% from current levels, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. It would also dedicate $5 billion in tax credits for private school vouchers and eliminate dozens of education programs, many of which serve disadvantaged and vulnerable youth.

Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan declared himself a proud product of public schools — and zeroed in on DeVos’ advocacy for charter schools, which he suggested poses a conflict of interest because her husband founded one in Michigan.

Charter schools fare worse, on average than public schools on measures of academic performance, he said, and some 40% that receive public grants close or fail. “That’s an F grade,” he said, and yet you’re advocating for more support for charter schools.

A 2019 Washington Post story cited data from an advocacy group that found more than 35% of charter schools funded by the federal Charter School Program (CSP) between 2006 and 2014 either never opened or were shut down.

DeVos disputed Pocan’s data but said she did not know the rate of charter school closures.

“You’re the secretary of education and you don’t have this?” Pocan pressed.

In another heated exchange, Pocan pressed DeVos over whether she supported a federally funded charter school chain in Texas that reportedly intended to lease a private jet and buy other luxury items. The plan to lease the jet was canceled after it was reported in the media, Pocan said.

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar | Ken Coleman

DeVos declined to answer, prompting Pocan to remark: “If the secretary of education can’t answer a yes or no question, I don’t know why you can be the secretary.”

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) chided Democrats for “badgering” DeVos, saying he was “very troubled by the tone of this hearing.”

But that didn’t stop DeVos’ critics from making harsh assessments of the secretary and her vision for the nation’s education system.

Some Democrats expressed outrage over the department’s refusal to release data relating to resegregation of public schools and discipline rates of students by race and ethnicity.

One lawmaker — U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts — called on her to resign.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Florida Democrat, blasted the administration’s voucher proposal, calling it “a program for wealthy people to get free private school.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

The “freedom scholarships” program would give tax credits to those who donate to organizations that grant scholarships to families pursuing private schools or at-home education.

Frankel also raised concern over the department’s proposed rule which would reportedly give students accused of sexual assault more rights, which she said could discourage victims from coming forward.

Asked whether the rule would apply in cases of assault or harassment that occur off campus or online, DeVos declined to respond, which Frankel said was “really sad.”

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.