Senate LHHS-Ed Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing with Secretary DeVos on Department of Education’s FY 2019 Budget Request

The Senate LHHS-Ed Subcommittee held a hearing June 6th on the Department of Education’s FY 2019 Budget Request of $63.2 billion for fiscal year 2019, which is $7.7 billion or 11% less than FY 2018. Right off the bat, Chairman Blunt (R-MO) let the Secretary know that the proposed cuts to education, including large formula programs that support school safety [Title IV-A] and professional development [Title II-A] were not going to be made by Congress. During the hearing, Secretary DeVos laid out 5 areas of importance that guided the proposed budget including school safety, school choice, IDEA, workforce programs, and STEM education.

Given the recent school shootings, it was no surprise that the subject of school safety was by far the biggest topic of concern throughout the hearing as multiple members of Congress expressed concern about the Department’s cuts to programs that support school safety, like Title IV-A of ESSA. Several members were also interested in what the recently formed safety commission was doing to address these issues. The Department’s disinvestment in higher education programs was also a topic of conversation from both sides of the aisle as members wanted to know why certain programs like TRIO were being cut and how the Department’s short-term Pell-grants would benefit students. The Department’s $1 billion request for an unauthorized school choice program also came in for scrutiny, particularly since Congress rejected the same request last year. Other topics that came up briefly included approval of ESSA plans, enforcement of civil rights, and immigration. Overall, it was clear that Secretary DeVos stuck very closely to her talking points, stating repeatedly that the proposed budget was based on the constraints that existed before the two-year spending caps deal and that the Department’s main goal is to streamline duplicative programs and eliminate ineffective programs that do not meet student needs.

Witness

Betsy DeVos, Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

Opening Remarks and Witness Testimony

Chairman Blunt (R-MO) opened the hearing by expressing appreciation for Secretary Devos’ ambitions to streamline programs and reduce federal spending on inefficient programs. He acknowledged the education priorities they agree on, including supporting STEM education like computer science education, specifically mentioning the $50 million for STEM included in the FY 2018 omnibus and told Devos that he looked forward to working with her on “how the Department can support and expand that effort as well as build upon the innovative work states and school districts are already doing in STEM education.” He also explained that he looks forward to working with the Department on making college more accessible and affordable, specifically referring to ensuring funding for Year-Round Pell, TRIO, and Federal Work Study programs.

Despite the agreement on these issues, Chairman Blunt pointed out that he and the Secretary have some areas of disagreement, including areas of student loan servicing proposals and cuts to k-12 education programs. Blunt reminded DeVos that Congress included provisions in the FY 2018 omnibus that prevented the Department from moving forward with their “misguided” loan servicing proposal that “does not include certain safeguards to promote accountability and transparency and incentivize high-quality service for borrowers.” The Chairman further reminded her that Congress rejected last year many of the k-12 programs proposed for elimination this year, like Title II-A and Title IV-A, saying: “This Subcommittee will not pass a bill eliminating large formula grant programs supporting afterschool programs and teacher professional development.”

Ranking Member Murray (D-WA) used her opening statement to harshly criticize Secretary DeVos and her policies. She said that Department’s FY2019 budget proposal “only advances the Secretary’s personal agenda to privatize public education.” She pointed out that in the last year DeVos has ignored the will of the educators she serves and has failed to educate herself about the public education system, instead filling the Department with political appointees that further her agenda. Specifically, Murray pointed out that DeVos has stripped regulations that protect LGBTQ students, protect civil rights, and ensure campus safety, and has made it easier for predatory IHE’s and loan servicers to rip students off. Additionally, she pointed out the Secretary’s hypocrisy in forming a gun safety commission that “hasn’t taken any real steps to address the gun violence” and in proposing the elimination of the federal formula program [Title IV-A] that addresses school safety. She concluded by stating she looks forward to holding the Secretary accountable for implementing the laws as intended by Congress.

Secretary DeVos opened her testimony by explaining that the budget was determined before a deal to raise spending caps was put in place and that a White House addendum to the budget aimed to restore funding to important programs, like Pell, Impact Aid, and Federal Work Study programs. During her testimony, she laid out 5 priorities that guided the Department’s funding requests:

  1. School Safety: The Secretary explained that in the wake of more school shootings, addressing the “culture of violence” and making school’s safer is a priority for the Department and said that the recently formed commission is looking at ways to make schools safer. Despite the Department’s request to zero out Title IV-A, DeVos testified that she has “directed the Department to do everything within the law to encourage states and districts to take advantage of flexibilities in spending the $1.1 billion in new funding available (through it) beginning July 1.” She explained that the “primary responsibility for the physical security of schools rests with states and local communities” but said schools should have the resources to “improve safety infrastructure, hire more counselors, and host more programs and activities aimed at violence prevention.”
  2. School Choice: For the second year in a row and despite Congress’ denial to entertain her proposals for School Choice, DeVos and her Department discussed the request to include $1 billion in funding for a new (and unauthorized) choice program. DeVos explained that under the new program, “states could apply for funding to provide scholarships to students from low-income families that could be used to transfer to a different school, and local educational agencies participating in the Department’s weighted student-centered funding pilot could request funds to build on the flexibility provided by establishing or expanding open enrollment programs.” Other proposals included allowing state reservations of Title I dollars for school choice and increasing funding for charter schools.
  3. Students with Disabilities: Secretary DeVos didn’t say much about this area specifically in her oral or written testimony other than the fact that the Department continues to support maintaining strong investments in IDEA programs.
  4. Workforce Pathways: The Department’s budget “includes proposals that would promote multiple pathways to successful careers while minimizing costs to students and families.” In order to expand opportunities for students to attend 4-year colleges, 2-year colleges, and apprenticeship and workforce programs, the budget also includes a proposal to expand Pell for short term programs.
  5. STEM Education: The proposal includes funds to support “STEM education to help better equip America’s young people with the relevant knowledge and skills that will enable them to secure high-paying, stable jobs throughout their careers,” including $200 million in new funding to support STEM education and $330 million in discretionary grants for STEM projects.

Main Topics Throughout the Hearing

School safety: Given the onslaught of school shootings in the past few months and the creation of a federal commission under the Department of Education to study the culture of school violence, members on both sides of the aisle were interested in school safety issues. On the left, Sens. Leahy (D-VT), Shaheen (D-NH), and Murphy (D-CT) wanted to know how it was possible Secretary DeVos’ commission was looking into issues of school safety without considering the issues of guns in schools. DeVos indicated that guns were not within the Commission’s purview, leading Senator Leahy to say that a Commission addressing gun violence without talking about guns is “an interesting concept.” Senator Shaheen read the letter of a student expressing her constant fears of mass shootings and strongly urged the Secretary to expand the Commission’s mission to include looking at the role firearms play in these issues. Since Secretary DeVos’ response continued to be that the federal government should not tell the states and districts exactly how to handle this issue given it’s a local problem, Senator Murphy wanted an explanation as to how the Department balances not telling districts what to do with sharing evidence-based approaches that actually work. DeVos said she encourages the states and districts to look at these best practices and implement them where they make sense.

On the right, Senator Rubio (R-FL) talked about his legislation that would prevent districts from receiving federal dollars if they had any policy that would disincentivize school personnel from reporting violent misconduct to the authorities. He said that while the disciplinary regulations to prevent discrimination and overreporting of minority students put in place by the Obama administration were noble and important, their effect was problematic. Additionally, members on both sides of the aisle, including Chairman Blunt and Senator Manchin (D-WV) asked DeVos why she cut programs like Title IV-A, which provide funds to districts to address school safety. She explained that the budget was proposed before the caps deal and before Congress increased Title IV-A to $1.1 billion.

Higher Education: Many Senators were keenly interested in the Department’s proposals to cut higher education programs, especially those that provide aid to first generation students or minority students, like the TRIO program. Chairman Blunt highlighted the importance of these programs by pointing out that he was the first person in his family to attend college, stressing that investing these programs is critical to the success of low-income, minority, or first-generation students. Senator Capito (R-WV) was also concerned about the proposed cuts to the TRIO program, specifically in the wake of applications that were denied for minor errors. She also was interested in the Department’s proposals to block grant higher education funding to states and let them administer the grants at the state level competitively rather than through the Department. Senator Capito explained that when money goes by formula to the states, the smaller states often lose out in getting bigger awards. DeVos replied that states would get their fair share and are better equipped to grant awards to the institutions with which they work closely.

On the subject of affordability, Senator Reed (D-RI) expressed concern about the willingness to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which he said could seriously affect the number of military enrollees. Senator Durbin (D-IL), meanwhile, focused on issues regarding for profit institutions– testing the Secretaries knowledge by asking her to answer a multiple-choice question about which group of institutions enroll 9% of high school graduates but account for 33% of defaults––the answer being for profit colleges. Further, he pointed out to Secretary DeVos that she knowingly appointed to the Department’s enforcement units multiple people who worked at for profit institutions and had conflicts of interest. Senator Baldwin (D-WI) generally spoke about her extreme disappointment in the cuts to programs including work study, SSEOG, Perkins, and PSLF, stating that it clearly shows the Department isn’t trying to meet students’ needs by making college less affordable. Again, Secretary DeVos answered that the budget was proposed under constraints but noted there were increases to the Pell grant for short term apprenticeship programs, which she said will help get students into the workforce faster and debt free. Both Chairman Blunt and Senator Capito were also interested in hearing about the proposed expansion of the Pell grants for apprenticeship and workforce programs.

School Choice: Regardless of the fact that Congress rejected the Department’s school choice proposals in FY 2018, DeVos again advocated for the proposal to use $1 billion under an unauthorized program as well as open up Title I funds for school choice. Senator Lankford (R-OK) was interested in the Department’s idea that would allow families to choose any school in the district and how that would impact the schools that were not chosen. DeVos said she would encourage the districts to open choice opportunities through weighted funding pilot programs and through the Department’s choice proposal. She explained that the evidence shows that when implemented on a smaller scale in states, disruption is minimized at the school level. Senators Murray and Manchin weren’t buying that explanation, though, and criticized the proposal as a way to funnel money away from schools that need it most. Since it is not authorized in law and the Secretary’s budget made cuts to programs that Congress doesn’t agree with, it is highly unlikely that the school choice proposal will be funded.

Source: Bernstein Strategy Group