U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos clashed with Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday over protections for LGBT students, balking when asked directly if she would ban private schools from receiving federal funds if they discriminate against these students.
The Trump administration wants to invest millions into an unprecedented expansion of private-school vouchers and public-private charter schools, prompting critics to worry that religious schools, for example, might expel LGBT students or, more broadly, that private schools might refuse to admit students with disabilities. Testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, DeVos told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., “Let me be clear: Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. Period.”
But after another Democrat, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, pointed out that federal law is "somewhat foggy" surrounding LGBT student protections, DeVos simply repeated that schools must follow federal law, adding, “Discrimination in any form is wrong.”
Merkley pressed again, asking DeVos point-blank whether private and charter schools receiving federal funds under Trump's budget proposal could discriminate against students based on sexual orientation or religion.
She said the department "is not going to be issuing decrees” on civil rights protections.
Merkley asked Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs the subcommittee, to note that DeVos refused to directly answer the question.
DeVos came under fire last month for a nearly identical exchange, refusing to tell a House Appropriations subcommittee whether she would block federal voucher funding to private schools that discriminate against LGBT students. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told DeVos, “To take the federal government’s responsibility out of that is just appalling and sad.”
DeVos’ spokeswoman later said the controversy stemmed from a “fundamental misunderstanding” by lawmakers about what the secretary was talking about. On Tuesday, DeVos sought to clarify that she wasn't talking about a specific voucher proposal. "It is really appropriations language,” she said.
During the nearly two-and-a-half-hour hearing, DeVos defended the Trump administration’s proposed $9 billion cut to education, saying the planned 13% reduction in funding may seem shocking, but it’s necessary.
"I’ve seen the headlines, and I understand those figures are alarming for many," DeVos told lawmakers, according to her prepared testimony. The proposed 2018 budget, she said, refocuses the department on supporting states and school districts in their efforts to provide “high-quality education” to all students while simplifying college funding, among other efforts.
Overall, Trump plans to eliminate or phase out 22 programs that the administration says are “duplicative, ineffective, or are better supported through state, local, or private efforts.”
The administration wants to cut teacher training, vocational training and before- and after-school programs, among others. It also wants to eliminate subsidized loans and a new loan forgiveness program for students who commit to public service after college. Trump wants to funnel the savings into several school choice proposals — including a $250 million fund for expanding public funding of private-school vouchers.
The proposal faces an uphill battle in Congress. On Tuesday, Blunt, a Republican, called it "a difficult budget request to defend,” saying deep cuts to programs like after-school would be “all but impossible” to get through the committee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Trump’s budget request “can be summed up in one word: abysmal.”
As she has recently, DeVos on Tuesday took a swat at past federal efforts to reform education, noting that discretionary spending at the U.S. Department of Education quadrupled between 1989 and 2016, from $17.1 billion to $68.3 billion.
The “seemingly endless” reform efforts, she said, have been top-down and have generated “more publicity than results,” failing to close long-standing achievement gaps between white, middle-class students and their low-income and minority peers. They've also produced disappointing results for high school graduation and college completion rates.
While achievement has been mixed in recent decades, high school graduation and college completion rates have actually risen, sometimes sharply. Federal data show that in 2015, the graduation rate for public high school students rose to a record-high 83%. U.S. colleges also awarded more degrees — 961,167, up 35.2% from a decade earlier.
A GOP mega-donor and four-time chair of the Michigan Republican Party, DeVos previously ran an organization that promotes private-school choice. DeVos last month called school choice critics “flat-earthers” and said expanding families’ educational choices is a way to bring U.S. education “out of the Stone Age and into the future.”
Just asked @BetsyDeVos if she has any problem w for profit elementary school CEOs making millions off public education. She did not.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) June 6, 2017
On Tuesday, she said more choice would help families in more ways than one, noting that when parents decide proactively which school their child should attend, “there’s a lot more engagement, naturally, as a result of that.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo