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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Democrats Grill DeVos on School Choice and Budget Cuts

From Real Clear Education

By Ford Carson and Christopher Beach
May 25, 2017

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared before Congress Wednesday to face tough questions about the administration's proposal to cut $9 billion, or 13 percent, from the department's $68 billion budget while spending an unprecedented $1.4 billion to expand school choice.

“I’ve seen the headlines, and I understand those figures are alarming for many; however, this budget refocuses the department on supporting states and school districts in their efforts to provide high-quality education to all our students,” DeVos said in her opening statement before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee.

What followed was a barrage of questions from Democrats honing in on the proposed budget cuts and how federal dollars would be used to push school vouchers.

In a tense exchange, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., asked DeVos whether she would prevent private schools that receive public dollars from discriminating against students. Citing an example of a private Christian school in Indiana that denies access to gay students, Clark pressed DeVos on how she would treat that school if it applied for federal voucher funds.

“There’s no situation of discrimination or exclusion that, if a state approved it for its voucher program, you would step in and say, ‘That’s not how we’re going to use federal dollars?’” Clark asked.

"For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” DeVos stated.

"So that's a ‘No,’" Clark added.

The congresswoman followed up with a similar hypothetical about African-American students. DeVos replied that the Department of Education's "Office of Civil Rights, and our Title IX protections, are broadly applicable across the board."

The exchange revealed a quandary that DeVos and many Republicans face – how to expand school choice with public dollars while allowing private and religious schools to maintain their autonomy from certain federal laws and protections. It's a question that has long divided the school choice movement and doesn't appear to be fading anytime soon.

“To be sure, no school – public or private – may discriminate on the basis of race. But the cause of pluralism demands that we allow a multiple variety of schools, including those that serve only one gender, and those that only serve one religion,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a leading think tank that supports school choice.

“I'm not surprised that this freighted issue was politicized at Secretary DeVos's hearing. No good can come from nationalization, and politicizing, the debate around such sensitive trade-offs.”

Many Democrats don't see it this way. "If this administration won't say they'll protect students facing discrimination, then they are failing our children on a fundamental level,” Clark told RealClearEducation.

Last year, Clark introduced a bill that would publicize the names of colleges and universities that have cited their religious principles as a reason to exempt themselves from certain Title IX protections for students.

During the hearing, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., pressed further and asked DeVos if all recipients of public funds would be held to equal standards of accountability. In her response, DeVos cited the accountability standards included in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which do not, contrary to her testimony, apply to private schools.

Other members, allotted just five minutes apiece in the hearing, expressed frustration at DeVos’s lengthy responses and lack of specifics on budget issues. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., both pressed DeVos on her source of funding for vouchers. DeVos replied that vouchers are not the only vehicle for promoting choice and that the specifics remain to be decided upon.

However, there was one area of federal law about which DeVos was crystal clear: federal intrusion into curriculum and standards. Referring to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., asked DeVos, “Do you acknowledge that the law now expressly forbids coercing states to adopt certain education standards in curriculum, including Common Core?” DeVos agreed and said the department would follow the letter of the law.

"Secretary DeVos couldn’t have been any clearer: federal coercion in education is done,” Roby stated after the hearing. “We made that the law and the department is going to follow it. As someone who has worked very hard over the last four years to make this a reality, I greatly appreciate the secretary’s directness."

Ford Carson is an editorial intern for RealClearPolitics. Christopher Beach is the editor of RealClearEducation.

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