True to form, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s testimony before Congress this week was yet another example of how her utterances about American public education and her governance over the system send people into fits of frustration and outrage.
Appearing before a House subcommittee, she was tasked to defend the Trump administration’s 2019 budget for her department. As prominent news outlets reported, she mostly sparked intense disagreement with her views on “gun control, racial bias, and civil rights.”
Repeated questioning over her views on whether students of color were far more apt to be discriminated against in school disciplinary actions – a matter of fact, rather than opinion – prompted California Democratic Representative Barbara Lee to exclaim, “Madam Secretary, you just don’t care much about civil rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.”
In another fiery exchange, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Katherine Clark repeatedly asked DeVos to say “yes or no” to whether a federal school voucher program would allow public dollars to go to schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ students. After Clark’s repeated questioning, DeVos eventually answered, “Yes,” but her answer seemed more like a tactic to end the questions rather than a genuine pledge to prevent against discrimination.
On the issue of gun control, Politico noticed that when news of a new school shooting in Maryland trickled into the hearing, Connecticut Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro asked DeVos, “Do you believe we have a crisis with gun violence in our country? That’s a yes or no question.” DeVos replied, “I believe we have a crisis of violence in our country, yes,” omitting the word “gun.”
Getting Lost in the Outrage
The outrage over DeVos is warranted. Her inability to answer direct questions is confounding, and she insults public school educators, who she’s expected to help support and lead, at nearly every turn.
It’s hard to imagine a worse secretary of education. But public exchanges with her tend to generate more heat than light, and there’s a danger that opposition to her views can veer away from substance toward style.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that DeVos and what she stands for are not a strange aberration, but rather representative of a powerful faction in American politics.
If you don’t believe that, look at the document she attempted to defend before Congress – her budget.
DeVos’s Budget Is Doctrinaire Conservative
Trump’s budget – and in turn the one DeVos defended for her department – is straight out of conservative doctrine for stripping government to the bone. In other words, it’s right in line with what nearly every conservative Republican governor has been inflicting on education systems in the states for years.
Straight off, the Trump education budget would strip 5.3 percent from the total federal education outlay, Education Week reports, sending federal funding for schools down 10.5 percent from 2017 levels, according to the Center for American Progress.
Two programs would see the steepest cuts: Title II funds that help recruit and retain teachers and the 21st Century Learning Centers block grants, which fund after school programs. Title II funding helps reduce class sizes and bolster the teaching workforce in low-income communities. And after school programs promote academic, social-emotional, and health and wellness benefits for children and youth, particularly in low-income communities.
In complete disregard to recent school shootings and calls from students and teachers to create safer learning environments, the Trump budget would also eliminate Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, Mother Jones reports. These grants help fund school district programs to promote “safe and healthy students,” including social emotional learning and restorative justice alternatives that are showing promising benefits.
Federal funds for the Special Olympics program also get the axe.
Funding for truly essential programs would be flat-lined – which is a really a cut – including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act state formula grants for educating students with disabilities and Title I funding for disadvantaged students, the biggest single K-12 program at the department.
In the meantime, the proposed budget adds $500 million in grants for charter school funding, an increase of roughly 50 percent from current spending levels. The budget also contributes $1 billion to fund a new pilot program for districts to let local funding follow students to their school ‘choice,’ including charter schools. Little is known about how billions of dollars in previous federal grants to charter schools have been spent, and there’s ample evidence much of it has gone to schools that either never opened or quickly closed. Why would we want to add to this wasteful outlay without including new safeguards and accountability?
A proposal to spend $200 million on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education seems like a boost for learning opportunities, but here again, evidence is ignored in favor of conservative orthodoxy. There’s little evidence increased spending on STEM education in K-12 schools increases the number of students choosing STEM related college degree programs. And prioritizing STEM and other “career training” education tracts, while cutting education funding elsewhere, reflects the conservative antipathy to teaching humanities.
Do Budgets Matter?
Does Trump’s education budget and DeVos’s defense of it matter?
“Members of Congress signaled they would probably reject many of the proposed cuts in DeVos’s budget, as they did last year,” the Washington Post reports, due in part to the opposition of some Republicans.
House members who just voted on a final version of the 2018 budget soundly rejected budget cuts Trump and DeVos proposed for education last year, Education Week reports. The House version of the budget the senate will have to vote on would increase spending at the U.S. Department of Education by $2.6 billion, including boosts of $300 million to Title I, $299 million for special education grants, and $20 million for 21st Century Community Learning Centers (instead of being cut entirely).
Funding for Title II would be retained rather than ended, and a a block grant for districts to address school safety, among other needs, would nearly triple from $400 million to $1.1 billion.
Federal aid to charter schools would get the big increase DeVos wants, from $342 million to $400 million, but a $250 million private school choice initiative and the $1 billion program for “school choice” DeVos wanted got axed.
Nevertheless, conservative stalwart the Heritage Foundation calls the cuts in Trump’s proposed 2019 budget “needed” and differs only with the budget’s targets for “school choice” and not the philosophy behind it.
DeVos defended her budget by saying, “President Trump is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education, and that is reflected in this budget.” Few conservatives would disagree with this intention.
The federal government supplies only a small percentage of school funding – less than 10 percent. But in today’s austerity climate, every bit helps because the level of funding that schools get matters a lot to the education opportunities they can provide. Research consistently shows there is a direct correlation between what we spend on schools to how well our students perform on achievement tests and other measures. In states that were forced by court order to increase education spending, research shows students experienced gains in student achievement. Studies also show that higher teacher salaries tend to correlate with better student outcomes. And smaller class sizes often correlate with improvements in student achievement
So it’s important to oppose what Trump and DeVos are proposing in their budget, not because DeVos is a person with reprehensible views, but because she is a person who represents a political philosophy with reprehensible values.