Senate appropriators told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday that the Education Department’s budget request was dead on arrival in Congress, with Republicans and Democrats alike defending programs the department proposes to slash or eliminate in fiscal 2018.
At the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, DeVos also clarified remarks she made in the House last month. She pledged Tuesday to ensure that federal school choice programs would require schools to follow laws for students with disabilities. She didn’t commit to any protections not in federal law.
DeVos declined to say whether the federal government would intervene if states sent vouchers to schools that discriminated against LGBT or minority students.
The department’s budget request proposed a $9.2 billion cut in fiscal 2018, to $59 billion from $68.2 billion in the annualized spending levels from the fiscal 2017 continuing resolution enacted in December. Several school choice programs, including vouchers and charter schools, would receive an additional $1.4 billion.
Sen. Roy Blunt, the subcommittee chairman, said students would be hurt if programs that promoted career and technical education and helped disadvantaged students attend college were cut. The Missouri Republican said that when it came to ending federal assistance to before- and after-school programs, it would “be all but impossible to get those kinds of cuts through this committee.”
“The kinds of cuts that are proposed in this budget will not occur,” he said.
The programs on the chopping block in the budget request include 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which received about $1.2 billion in fiscal 2017 to provide educational before- and after-school programs as well as summer learning; comprehensive literacy development grants, which received $190 million this fiscal year to help states increase literacy in primary education; and the federal supplemental education opportunity grants, which received $732 million in fiscal 2017 to provide grants to college students to help “reduce financial barriers to postsecondary education.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran raised concerns about cuts to grant programs to provide professional development grants to teachers.
“We need to train teachers and support the training of teachers,” the Mississippi Republican said. “There are federal programs that are legitimate and need to be on the front burner for the support and strengthening of our federal programs that help us teach our children.”
DeVos defended the proposed cuts, telling committee members the 22 programs cut in the budget were “duplicative, ineffective, or are better supported through state, local, or private efforts.”
When questioned about 21st Century Community Learning Centers, DeVos said the program did not focus on the school day, and therefore wasn’t a part of the department’s core mission.
“We made some tough choices and tough decisions around this,” she said. “But this one was deemed to be one that was not effective.”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, picked up on a line of questioning from a House hearing last month on whether DeVos would ensure students in a proposed $250 million voucher program would not be discriminated against by private schools they chose to attend.
DeVos committed to ensuring students in the voucher program would be protected under a law for student with disabilities. She declined to make that commitment last month before the House panel.
But DeVos did not commit to ensuring those students in the programs would be covered under a wider array of civil rights laws. Murray pushed back on her rhetoric that such choices should be left to states and localities.
“You are seeking authority for a new federal program,” Murray said. “It is paid by my taxpayers, so it can’t just be left to states.”
“Let me be clear,” DeVos said. “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. Period.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also quizzed DeVos about discrimination in her proposed school choice programs, noting that federal law is not always clear on issues such as LGBT students.
But despite a heated exchange, DeVos did not elaborate beyond stating that schools receiving federal dollars must follow the federal law.
“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department isn’t going to be issuing decrees,” she said.