Betsy DeVos Refuses to Rule Out Giving Funds to Schools That Discriminate

WASHINGTON — Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, on Wednesday fiercely defended budget plans to spend $1.4 billion on the Trump administration’s expanded school choice agenda, but refused to say whether her office would withhold funds from private schools that discriminate against students.

In her first testimony to Congress since a bruising confirmation hearing in January, Ms. DeVos appeared unflappable as she told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee that the budget sought to empower states and parents to make decisions about students’ educations.

“We cannot allow any parent to feel their child is trapped in a school that isn’t meeting his or her unique needs,” Ms. DeVos told lawmakers.

But Democrats derided the education spending blueprint for the 2018 fiscal year as tone deaf to low-income and working-class Americans. Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the panel, called it “cruel” and “inhumane.”

The budget plan would eliminate more than 20 education programs and redirect funding to expanding school choice initiatives. Those include a $250 million program to give students publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools.

But Ms. DeVos said states, not the Education Department, would decide whether to withhold federal money from private schools that are neither required to serve a diverse pool of students nor held publicly accountable for doing so.

Earlier this week, in a speech to school choice advocates, Ms. DeVos said that state participation in the voucher program and other federally funded school choice initiatives would be optional. But, she said, states that chose not to participate would be making a “terrible mistake.”

Representative Katherine M. Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked how Ms. DeVos would respond to a state that gave federal funding to a school that denied admission to students from lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender families.

“For states that have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” Ms. DeVos replied.

Though she said the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights would vigorously investigate any discrimination claims, Ms. DeVos declined to say how, specifically, she might protect students’ rights by intervening in state funding decisions.

“I’m shocked that you were unable to find one example of discrimination against students that you would be willing to stand up to,” Ms. Clark said.

Ms. DeVos maintained that parents should have the final say in what kind of schools their children attend. “Too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them,” she said. “We have to do something different.”

She offered similar reasoning when asked whether schools that received voucher money would be required to uphold special education students’ due process rights.

“If a parent chooses to go to a school that is not a public school, then that is a decision made and a contract made with that provider,” she said.

The education budget calls for cutting about $9 billion, or 13 percent of the department’s funding, from about 20 programs, including the Special Olympics for students with disabilities, after-school programs for low-income students and programs for gifted students.

Since the budget’s release Tuesday, opponents have expressed alarm at how much it targets student-centered programs. The department’s cuts to programs that help students pay for college, such as work-study and subsidized loans, have drawn the most ire.

John B. King Jr., who served as education secretary under President Barack Obama and now leads the Education Trust, a think tank, said it was an “assault on the American dream.”

“No one in good conscience could stand up and say this budget makes sense for the interests of students and the long-term interest of the country,” Mr. King said.

However, supporters called the cuts long overdue. The conservative Heritage Foundation said the spending blueprint “signals a serious commitment to reducing federal intervention in education — a necessary condition to make space for a restoration of state and local control.”

Ms. DeVos told committee members that while the cuts might be alarming, they reflected “tough choices” on programs that had been deemed ineffective or duplicative. More money has not translated into success for the nation’s public schools, she said, citing a $7 billion program targeting low-performing schools that did not improve student outcomes.

Republican members of the committee agreed, and praised Ms. DeVos for her emphasis on school choice and better outcomes for students.

“I think there is no question that we don’t get a bang for our buck in the American education system,” said Representative Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland. “We are failing in a global education economy.”

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