DeVos Testimony before House LHHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Trump Administration’s FY 2018 Budget

Executive Summary

On May 24, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor, Health, Human Services and Education about the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. The budget proposal, released less than 24 hours before DeVos’ testimony, would slash the Department of Education by $9.2 billion, cutting Title I by $578 million; eliminating Title II, Title IV, Part A and afterschool programs; and creating new funding streams and adding billions for school choice options. The severe cuts to programs that support public schools in high-needs districts in favor of increases to programs that support the use of public dollars at private schools raised serious concerns from Democrats. This topic sparked intense back and forth debate between Democratic members and Sec. DeVos, who strictly stuck to messaging about state’s rights and parental choice, failing to answer many specific questions about the impact of voucher programs.

While the cuts to ESSA programs and the voucher issue dominated the Democratic focus, members on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about cuts to higher education, Title II, and other programs. DeVos stuck to two general answers throughout the hearing: 1) regarding cuts to k-12 programs, she either suggested that Title I could cover those services or explained that the cuts were not truly cuts as the budget was prepared before the approval of the recent appropriations omnibus; and 2) regarding, vouchers, she stated that she wanted to put parents in the driver seat for education decisions and that states and districts were better equipped than the federal government to handle education issues.

 

Opening Remarks

Chairman Cole (R-OK) opened the hearing by stating that the most important job in Washington is to make sure that all students are receiving excellent educations and that the government needs to do the right thing for all American children. He noted that the proposed budget represented “dramatic shifts in the way the Department of Education does business” and expressed concerns about how the school choice proposals in the budget “mess with ESSA.” The Chairman pointed out that while the President’s budget maintains funding for some current programs, it was written after Congress finalized the fiscal year 2017 budget and said he had concerns with consolidations of some programs and proposed cuts to others, including IDEA. Throughout the hearing Chairman Cole clarified that due to the fact that the Administration’s budget was based off the CR, there may be some discrepancies and called on the Secretary to work with Congress to fix these issues, despite no fault of hers. The Chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), also gave brief opening remarks, stating that this hearing “demands credible spending justifications to reduce the federal deficit.” Part of this process, he said, is to determine which programs are the best use of taxpayer dollars and concluded by recognizing that there are benefits of well-rounded education programs supported by ESSA, including arts, STEM, and English language learning.

Ranking Member DeLauro (D-CT) opened and closed the hearing with loud, impassioned rejections of the proposed budget.  In her opening statement, she said that the budget proposal was “alarming, and quite frankly puts this country on the path to privatization of education, transferring tax dollars out of public schools.” Rather than funneling funds to private schools, DeLauro called on the Department to focus on supporting enrichment opportunities, high-quality preschools, high-quality teachers, and to support for low-income students in public schools, where 90% of the students attend. In her view, “Voucher systems would completely destabilize our public education system, cut funding for public schools, and force schools to do less for our students.” In closing she stated that this budget would cut Title I by $578 million, cut IDEA by $114 million, eliminate afterschool and literacy programs, slash higher education programs, cut CTE, and lower support for HBCU’s, which are “fraught by a painful history of segregation”––alluding to DeVos’ characterization that HBCU’s were “pioneers of school choice” rather than being borne out of intense segregation. At the hearing’s conclusion, DeLauro called the budget “cruel, inhumane, and heartless––a budget that will surely result in the suffering of millions of kids across the country.”

Ranking Member of the full Appropriations Committee Lowey (D-NY) said in her opening remarks that this budget was just another example of the harm the Trump’s administration would do to the American workforce. Lowey remarked that, based on this budget, “it is clear to me that you do not have an understanding of the public education system and the students it serves.”

DeVos’ opening remarks were very topline, reinforcing her commitment to expanding educational opportunities through providing greater access to private schools, giving flexibility and authority over education back to the states and locals, and refocusing the role of the federal government in education. She stated that her support for school choice is based on the “strong belief in the power of markets and competition as drivers of educational quality and accountability” and said,  “providing choices to parents promotes increased involvement in their children’s education.” DeVos critizised the government’s involvement in national curriculum standards and said that she doesn’t think “anyone is happy with the results of these seemingly endless Washington reform efforts.”

Turning to the FY18 budget and the Departmental increase in spending totaling $68.3 billion, DeVos said: “It is hard to make the case that the results of this extraordinary Federal investment in all levels of our education system” are what we hoped for. That is why, she explained, the President’s budget cuts departmental spending by 13 percent. She then pointed to the 5 principles guiding the budget proposal: 1) providing significant resources for the goal of ensuring that every child has an opportunity to attend a school of the parent’s choice; 2) maintaining support for America’s public schools through dedicated grant programs for the nation’s most vulnerable students; 3) maintaining funding for key competitive grant programs that support innovation and build evidence of what works in education; 4) reducing the complexity of funding for higher education while prioritizing and making it affordable; and 5) eliminating 22 duplicative or ineffective programs that are better supported through state, local, or private investments, saving the government $5.8 billion.

 

Main Themes Brought Up By Members of Congress

Impact of Voucher Programs: Many concerns were raised about the Department’s decision to cut billion of dollars from authorized programs in ESSA and provide increases to programs not authorized by law that would enable public dollars to flow to private schools—otherwise known as voucher and portability programs. Ranking Member DeLauro raised concerns about diverting money from public schools to private schools as a result of new funding for school choice programs. Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA) pointed out that many nonpartisan experts proved that these “school choice and portability efforts” would result in lower funding levels for high-needs districts and windfalls for wealthier districts, noting that a bipartisan Congress flatly rejected these provisions previously. DeVos’ justification for these proposals was they are ultimately for the benefit of students and parents and, regardless, are optional for the states. Reps. Roybal-Allard and DeLauro were firm in their statements to DeVos that these proposals led to major cuts to other programs despite her claims that they do not.

In addition to the funding impact of school choice programs, Reps. Lowey (D-NY) Pocan (D-WI), Clark (D-MA), and Lee (D-CA) raised serious issues regarding the loss of civil rights protections when a student attends a school participating in a voucher program. Both Reps. Lowey and Pocan asked DeVos to answer point blank: Under the Department’s proposal, would a student attending a school receiving federal funds have all of the due process rights guaranteed by IDEA and other civil rights laws? DeVos skirted the question multiple times, largely giving the same response: “This would be up the states to deal with in their own way.” Pushing the issue further, Rep. Clark asked DeVos to answer simply “yes” or “no”: “Would your Department intervene or overrule a decision by a state to allow a private school to discriminate and deny an LGBTQ student?” DeVos responded that the state has flexibility to decide how to handle this and that the bottom line is the parents are the most equipped to make decisions about where to send their kids to school. Rep. Lee expressed further concerns that under this justification and theory, schools would be allowed to point blank discriminate based on skin color, disabilities, and sexual orientation, stating that “to say that the parents and states are the ones who choose whether to send kids to schools that discriminate and remove the federal government is actually ludicrous.”

Aside from these issues, Rep. Pocan hit DeVos hard on the evidence that vouchers improve academics. During his question time, he and DeVos engaged in a spirited back and forth over his assertions that voucher programs failed to improve scores in Milwaukee and her claims that vouchers helped Milwaukee students.

 

Title II Part A of ESSA: Ranking Member DeLauro expressed outrage that the Department of Education would completely eliminate funding for Title II, Part A of ESSA, which provides professional development for educators, principals, and school leaders. She said: “The Department says Part A is redundant and duplicative and eliminating this sends message that all principals and teachers do not need to improve.” When she asked DeVos if she agrees with this notion, DeVos replied: “Title II funds have been spread too thinly and are its rules are so prescriptive in nature that they ender the funds meaningless… the grants have totaled less than $10,000 at the local level—making the efficacy of the program questionable.” She explained that there are other avenues within ESSA to provide support for teachers and school leaders, such as using Title I funds for this purpose. DeLauro refuted this statement saying that eliminating funding for Title II and using Title I funds, which the budget would essentially cut, will result in the firing of 8,000 educators supported by Title II A. DeLauro concluded the exchange by saying: “The fact is, you can’t do more with less.”

 

TRIO and HBCU funding: Sharing a bipartisan concern, several members of Congress brought up concerns regarding the cuts to the TRIO programs, which provide funding for programs targeted to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to graduate college. Reps. Cole (R-OK), Simpson (R-ID), DeLauro (D-CT), and Lee (D-CA) all disagreed with DeVos’ reasoning for cutting funding for TRIO. DeVos, for her part, defended the cuts by saying that the Administration, facing tough choices, felt that some areas within the program were not living up to their original intent. Chairman Cole suggested that if the Department did a deeper dive into the benefits of the program, it might find that the Department is mistaken and respectfully disagreed with DeVos on the issue. Rep. Barbara Lee was dismayed by the Department’s continuous assertion that HBCUs are receiving more support, citing a cut from the FY17 level and asking DeVos to clarify why the Department keeps saying it is an increase. In her defense, Chairman Cole pointed out that the level was based on a figure in the CR and that Congress will ensure there are no cuts to HBCU’s, putting the issue to bed.

 

CTE: While Democrats raised concerns about the $150 million in cuts to CTE programs, Republicans including Rep. Moolenaar (R-IN) asked how the Department would continue to invest in strengthening the workforce through CTE programs. DeVos admitted that this is an area of great focus for the Administration but said that the “best way to best support CTE is to focus the dollars to help support community colleges and higher learning institutions.” She also called for more conversations about multiple pathways and layered credentialing. Discussing state and federal roles on CTE, DeVos asserted that the role of the federal government was to highlight best practices and successes whereas states and locals are best equipped to infuse CTE programs earlier in student’s careers. Rep. Womack (R-AR) said that he completely agreed with DeVos’ earlier statement that CTE programs in high school should support students entering the workforce right after high school without the need for a four-year degree.

 

Title IV, A of ESSA: Rep. Fleischmann (R-TN) was the only member to bring up ESSA’s flexible block grant, stating he was disappointed by the Department’s elimination of the program under Title IV, Part A because of its ability to provide funding for computer science programs. Fleischmann cited that by 2020 there would be 960,000 job openings in computer science but only 30,000 students graduating ready to fill them. He asked DeVos whether she agreed that she needs to work with both sides of the aisle to ensure students are graduating with computer science skills. DeVos restated that the budget they worked off of was based on the CR, which did not mention Title IV, A and so was not a direct elimination. [She seemed unaware that other budget documents expressly eliminated the program.] In addition, she noted that the budget contained a $20 million experimental STEM program, apparently buried in overall CTE appropriations, which could help districts focus on the computer science issue. As with many programs, she concluded computer science was best dealt with at the local level.