Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seems to have a problem answering direct questions with direct answers — at least when testifying before Congress.
DeVos was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify about her department’s policies and priorities before the House Committee on Education and Labor and was asked repeatedly to provide yes-or-no answers to questions. She rarely did.
It wasn’t one of DeVos’s most memorable appearances before Congress, such as in 2017 when she said schools might need guns to protect against grizzly bears. But her performance still angered Democrats, who questioned her on transgender rights, literacy programs and using federal funds to arm teachers.
In some cases, her responses skirted the actual question as she attempted to change the subject. When Rep. Donald W. Norcross (D-N.J.) tried to get her to directly answer questions about whether she supported coercing teachers to leave their unions, she said her interest was in helping teachers develop in their profession.
NORCROSS: What does that have to do with joining unions? You are not answering that . . .
DEVOS: It doesn’t have anything [to do with it]. It has to do with supporting teachers . . .
NORCROSS: But I’m not asking if you are supporting teachers . . .
In other cases, she tried to answer with a longer answer but was cut off by lawmakers who didn’t like the answer or wanted to move to a different subject.
How she answered became a point for discussion. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said at the end of the questioning that it was “a gotcha hearing,” with some lawmakers trying to twist the secretary’s words. Rep. Van Taylor (R-Tex.) gave DeVos a reprieve earlier.
TAYLOR: You haven’t had a chance to answer a lot of questions. Is there anything you want to say?
DEVOS: There have been a number of things on which I was not able to comment. I think it’s difficult if issues are being conflated, and I also am here not to answer multiple-choice questions but to have an exchange on a number of issues.
Here are some of the exchanges:
Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), a former National Teacher of the Year, asked DeVos whether she believed that as education secretary she had the authority to tell school districts they could use federal money to arm teachers and train them in using guns.
DeVos said she did not believe she had the authority, but Hayes produced an Education Department memo that clearly says she does have that authority.
Hayes tried to get DeVos to state her position on using federal funds to arm teachers, but the secretary would not. Nor would she say whether she had the authority to provide guidance on the issue.
DEVOS: I have neither advocated for or against.
HAYES: No, you are absolutely right. You have not advocated for or against, but in light of the contents of this memo, you have the ability to make a decision. Your silence is a decision. You have the authority to say that we cannot use federal funds to arm teachers. You are in line for presidential succession. Make a decision on this. You have the authority to do it. Will you prohibit federal funds to arm teachers? Yes or no, Madame Secretary?
DEVOS: This is a matter for states and communities to decide.
HAYES: You have the authority.
DEVOS: Congress has the authority to make that decision.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) talked about several issues, sometimes getting direct answers from DeVos, sometimes not.
Bonamici, chair of the Education and Labor subcommittee on civil rights and human services, quizzed the secretary about the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to rescind Obama-era guidance on transgender students. That guidance said prohibiting transgender students from using facilities aligning with their gender identity violates federal anti-discrimination laws.
At the time, there were reports DeVos opposed having the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) roll back the guidance and that the decision was made by Jeff Sessions, who was attorney general then. But when DeVos was asked about whether she supported the rollback, she said, “Yes, 100 percent.”
BONAMICI: We know that transgender students are frequently bullied and victimized, and we know also that the 2016 guidance to schools about transgender students was applauded by education and health-care experts, educators, counselors, pediatricians, psychologists, because it made students safer at school. But your department rolled back that guidance, creating uncertainty and concern. When you rolled back that guidance, did you know that the stress of harassment and discrimination can lead to lower attendance and grades as well as depression and anxiety for transgender students? Did you know?
DEVOS: Congresswoman, OCR is committed to ensuring that all students have equal access to an education free from discrimination.
BONAMICI: . . . I would really like an answer. Students and families need to know this. We had the mother of a transgender student here yesterday. We need to know this. Did you know when you rolled back the guidance that the stress of harassment and discrimination can lead to lower attendance and grades as well as depression for transgender students? Did you know that when you rolled back the guidance?
DeVOS: I do know that. But I will say again that OCR is committed to ensuring that all students have access to their education free from discrimination.
BONAMICI: Let me ask you this as well. When you rolled back the guidance, did you know that a study recently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed alarming levels of attempted suicide among transgender youth? Did you know that as well when you rolled back that guidance?
DEVOS: I am aware of that data.
Actually, the report Bonamici appeared to be referencing was published in 2018, well after the guidance was pulled.
Del. Gregorio Kilili Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) questioned DeVos about the Education Department’s record in approving plans by states to comply with the federal K-12 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). He kept asking how much she knew about what states were doing to ensure that school systems were providing achievement data for every subgroup of students. She didn’t directly answer.
SABLAN: Are you aware, Madame Secretary, that 40 states do not include disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup on their state report card as required by federal law?
DEVOS: Congressman, I was pleased to approve every state’s ESSA plan, and I did not approve any plans that did not comply completely with the law. And we are now in the monitoring phase and continue to ensure that states comply with the law and . . .
SABLAN: I would just like a “yes” or “no” answer on the record. Are you aware that approximately 40 states do not include disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup on their state report card?
DEVOS: Again, congressman, yes, all of the ESSA plans comply with the law.
SABLAN: Madame Secretary, that’s not a yes-or-no answer.
He then asked whether she thought states and school systems could ensure equity in education without the data about how subgroups of students perform on tests. She again replied that the department has “ensured all of the ESSA plans comply with the law.”
SABLAN: The answer is no. We cannot advance equity without this information. The law requires states to disaggregate data . . . How do you plan to address this issue to make sure the states are complying with the law and held accountable for the success of all students?
DEVOS: Again, sir, we continue to monitor the states as they implement their ESSA plans to make sure they are compliant with all aspects of the law . . .
SABLAN: . . . English is my second language . . . You are not giving me an answer. So let me be very simple, Madame Secretary. Can I have today your commitment to improve ESSA oversight? . . . Your commitment, yes or no?
DEVOS: We are committed to continuing to ensure every state . ..
SABLAN: . . . I take that as a yes. So let me go to my next issue. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Department of Education approved at least 12 states to implement accountability systems that do not take into account the performance of historically underserved students as required by law, despite what you just told me . . . Does it make sense to you for a school to receive an A or a B [on school report cards issued by states] if students of color or other subgroups consistently underperform?
DEVOS: Congressman, again, we are committed to monitoring the states to ensure that they continue to comply with the law . ..
SABLAN: Madame Secretary, respectfully, you are not answering my question. The students, the educators, we deserve direct answers . . . Thank you very much for trying.
Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) asked DeVos about the Education Department’s decision late last year to reinstate an accrediting council for colleges and schools that the Obama administration had moved against because of failure to meet federal standards.
DeVos told the committee her department’s decision to reinstate the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools was provisional.
Adams said she was concerned by the reinstatement and asked DeVos if she knew that less than a month after the accrediting agency was reinstated, a large network of for-profit colleges with 19,000 students closed.
“Madame Secretary, are you aware of that? Can you say yes or no?” Adams asked.
DeVos responded by talking about the “very thorough process” the department went through to reinstate the accreditor.
ADAMS: So you are aware of that? Can you say yes or no?
DEVOS: I am aware of the process we went through [to reinstate the agency] . . .
DEVOS: So you are not going to give me a yes or no answer?
Norcross repeatedly asked DeVos about efforts by anti-union organizations to coerce teachers to leave or not join unions. She did not directly answer, leading him to say:
NORCROSS: Do you still believe in that? It’s a very simple question. It’s not multiple choice. It is a yes or no.
DEVOS: It is a very simple answer . . .
NORCROSS: . . . We are trying to ask questions and get answers, and that’s the way we work together. When you start answering something I did not ask, that is very disrespectful.
She did answer some questions directly.
Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) asked DeVos why her proposed 2020 budget for the Education Department eliminates federally funded literacy programs at a time when well over half of students do not read at grade level, according to standardized tests. He said he had benefited from federally funded literacy programs.
DeVos announced that government departments “had to submit a budget that was 10 percent lower” than last year, and she decided to focus funding on programs they thought would “more broadly” help students.
There was a second reason she gave: Billions of dollars in federal funding for education over the past five decades had not improved test scores, and so it was time to “pivot.”
Harder wasn’t buying her answers.
HARDER: I think what kills me about this . . . it’s the hypocrisy of what I see from this department. If you go on the website [of the Education Department], there’s a picture of you reading a book to kids. You have gone around the country [reading to kids]. And then you get back to Washington . . . and eliminate every single federal literacy program . . . And I think that hypocrisy is disappointing and really heartbreaking . ..
DeVOS: If these problems had been solved by the federal government, we would have seen different results in the last 50 years. We have not.