DeVos Declines Questions on Discrimination, Accountability in Voucher Schools

May 24, 2017; New York Times

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos just faced her first testimony to Congress since her confirmation hearing in January. Based upon her last hearing before the Senate and the reason for the hearing—the president’s 2018 budget proposal, which calls for a $9.2 billion cut to education spending—things went as well as could be expected when she testified at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The White House’s proposed 2018 budget slashes education spending by 13.5 percent, cutting $10.6 billion from federal student loans and grants, afterschool programs, and teacher training. It would reduce funding for career and technical education, and would nearly halve the budget for the federal work-study program. It would fully eliminate 22 education programs, including the Comprehensive Literacy Development Grants program, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, Teacher Quality Partnerships, and many international education programs. But DeVos’ hearing focused largely on increased spending in the area of school choice.

In her defense of the Trump administration’s call for a $1.4 billion expansion to school choice programs, DeVos spoke repeatedly about the value of granting parents choices when it comes to their children’s education but dodged questions about discrimination by private schools using federally funded vouchers.

In one of the more contentious points of the hearing, DeVos deflected a question on whether private schools using federally-funded vouchers may discriminate against students for any reason, saying she didn’t want to answer a hypothetical. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) raised the real-life example of a private school in Indiana that has said it may deny admission to LGBT students or students from LGBT families.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) questioned whether public money should be used in schools that do not guarantee protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to ensure access to appropriate education for disabled students. DeVos responded that states should be allowed to decide whether voucher students must give up their IDEA rights.

Throughout the hearing, DeVos’ responses evaded the answer the House subcommittee’s Democrats were seeking: an indication that private schools accepting vouchers would be held to the same federal standards as public schools. When Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) asked explicitly whether all recipients of public funds would be held to equal accountability standards, DeVos responded that the Every Student Succeeds Act, a school accountability law, would be applicable, and that, again, “states should decide what kind of flexibility they allow.” ESSA’s accountability regulations, however, do not apply to private or religious schools.

While neither DeVos nor anyone else in the Trump administration has given specifics on the way that vouchers will be distributed, DeVos has said that states will be able to decline school choice funding. But that promise hasn’t stopped conservative groups such as the American Enterprise Institute or school choice advocate group the Fordham Institute from voicing concerns that the expansion of federal choice funding may allow the federal government too much oversight into schools. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions have (again) pointed out their position that school choice takes funding away from traditional public schools.—Lauren Karch