by Félix Pérez
It’s been more than two weeks since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ widely panned appearance before a U.S. House committee in which she sought to defend President Trump’s education budget. And if her testimony before a U.S. Senate committee this week is any indication, DeVos hasn’t learned from her mistakes.
DeVos, a longtime funder and advocate for taking scarce funding from public schools to give to private schools in the form of vouchers or tax credits, again refused to say if federally funded voucher and charter schools would be banned from discriminating against students based on their sexual orientation or religion. “On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees,” said DeVos in one of her multiple variations of the same evasive answer.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon, grew exasperated at DeVos’ noncommittal response:
I think it’s important for the public to know that today the secretary of education, before this committee, refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or ban discrimination based on religion.
DeVos’ refusal to say that private schools that discriminate would be barred from receiving federal funds echoes her responses at the House hearing last month, when she declined to offer a direct response. US Rep. Katherine Clark of Connecticut, frustrated, pressed DeVos. “So if I understand your testimony — I want to make sure I get this right. There is 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 are going to use our federal dollars?”
DeVos’ nonresponse: “I go back to the bottom line — is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions.”
Similarly, DeVos would not say that private voucher schools should be obligated to honor the rights of students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the American with Disabilities Act. Fourteen times when asked, she trotted out the same response: “Any institution receiving federal funding is required to follow federal law.” Despite questions from several senators, DeVos steadfastly refused to state the rights of all students would be safeguarded.
DeVos drew pointed remarks and questions from both Democrats and Republicans during her painful Senate hearing. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, told her that Trump-DeVos’ $9 billion in cuts to multiple education programs and services were unlikely to pass. Said Blunt:
This is a difficult budget request to defend. I think it’s likely that the kinds of cuts that are proposed in this budget will not occur, so we need to fully understand your priorities and why they are your priorities.
Sen. Blunt later added that “the outright elimination of several large formula grant programs — like the 21st Century Learning Centers — I think will be all but impossible to get through this committee.”
The hearing was not without its bizarre moment. John Neely Kennedy (R-LA) said choosing a school should be like choosing mayonnaise. “Now I can go down to my overpriced Capitol Hill grocery this afternoon and choose among about six different types of mayonnaise. How come I can’t do that for my kid?”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) took exception to the remark:
With all due respect to my colleague from Louisiana — education is not mayonnaise. And frankly, the day we start treating the education of our children like the marketing of a condiment is the day we have given up on our kids.
See the Kennedy-Murphy exchange here.
The comparison of a school to a consumer good is not unfamiliar to DeVos. She has likened neighborhood public schools to outdated flip phones. She also has said a parent selecting a school is akin to choosing between a taxi and Uber or Lyft, car-sharing services.
It’s been more than four months since DeVos assumed her position overseeing policy for the nation’s public education system. Alarmingly, in that time, she has not shown much change from when, two years ago, she called public schools “a dead end.”