(House Appropriations Committee)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to say Wednesday whether she would block private schools that discriminate against LGBT students from receiving federal dollars, explaining that she believes states should have the flexibility to design voucher programs and that parents should be able to choose schools that best fit their children’s needs.

DeVos returned frequently to the theme of what she called a need for more local control in her first appearance before Congress since her rocky confirmation hearing in January.

Fielding questions from members of a House Appropriations subcommittee, she said that states should decide how to address chronic absenteeism, mental health issues and suicide risks among students and that states should also decide whether children taking vouchers are protected by federal special-education law.

Researchers have found that many states allow religious schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to deny admission to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students or children with LGBT parents.

Asked by Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) whether she could think of any circumstance in which the federal government should step in to stop federal dollars from going to private schools that discriminate against certain groups of students, DeVos did not directly answer.

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” DeVos said.

Democrats immediately criticized DeVos’s philosophy, saying the nation’s top education official must be willing to defend children against discrimination by institutions that get federal money. “To take the federal government’s responsibility out of that is just appalling and sad,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

DeVos pushed back against the notion that the Education Department would be abdicating its authority. “I am not in any way suggesting that students should not be protected,” she said.

Liz Hill, a DeVos spokeswoman, said later Wednesday that panel members had asked questions about a voucher program that doesn’t exist yet and about topics not covered under federal law.

“There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the Federal and State roles in education. When States design programs, and when schools implement them, it is incumbent on them to adhere to Federal law,” Hill said in an email. “The Department of Education can and will intervene when Federal law is broken.”

DeVos traveled to Capitol Hill to defend a spending plan that has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

President Trump has proposed slashing $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives, including after-school programs, teacher training, and career and technical education, and reinvesting $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting his top education priority: school choice, including $250 million for vouchers to help students attend private and religious schools.

The administration is also seeking far-reaching changes­ to student aid programs, including the elimination of subsidized loans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness and a halving of the federal work-study program that helps college students earn money to support themselves while in school.

In her opening remarks Wednesday, DeVos said that while the size of the proposed cuts to K-12 and student financial programs “may sound alarming for some,” the president’s budget proposal reflects a push to return more decision-making power to states and more educational choice to parents.

“We cannot allow any parent to feel as if their child is trapped in a school that is not meeting their needs,” DeVos said.

Democrats predictably attacked the administration’s budget proposal as an effort to undermine public schools and low-income students’ ability to attend college.

“This budget reflects the views of an administration filled with people who frankly never had to worry about how they were going to pay for their children going to college,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “And yet I’m most upset that this budget would undermine our public education system and the working families who depend on them.”

Several Republicans praised DeVos, particularly for her push to expand school choice. “I’ve always made known my preference for giving parents the choice of where to send their students, because in the end the parents are the taxpayers. The parents are the ones who probably know best,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.).

But GOP members also displayed their share of skepticism about the administration’s proposed cuts.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the education subcommittee, questioned the proposal to dramatically cut college financial aid programs such as work-study and college-access programs for low-income students. “Frankly, I will advise you,” Cole said, “I have a different point of view.”

Another key Republican, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, emphasized that it is members of Congress and not the president who hold the power of the purse and will ultimately design the federal budget.

Declaring “awe” for special-education teachers’ hard work, Frelinghuysen also questioned whether the administration had proposed adequate funding for students with disabilities. DeVos seemed open to devoting more money, calling it a “matter for robust conversation.”

A 1975 federal special-education law promised that Congress would pay 40 percent of the cost of providing additional services to students with disabilities. Lawmakers have never come close and in 2017 are footing only about 15 percent of the cost. The Trump administration is proposing to hold funding at that level.

Critics said they are hopeful that Congress will reject many of Trump’s ideas, as lawmakers did this month when they reached a bipartisan deal to fund the government through September.

But even in that scenario, Trump’s proposal creates damaging uncertainty for school districts and students seeking to pay for college, said John B. King Jr., who served as President Barack Obama’s education secretary and now helms the nonprofit group Education Trust.

“The administration has framed the conversation as a conversation about cuts rather than a conversation about investment,” King said. “We should be talking about investing more.”

While the administration’s proposed cuts have been embraced by fiscal conservatives who argue that Education Department programs need to be trimmed or eliminated, some conservatives are also troubled by the administration’s proposal to invest new money in school choice, saying that represents an unwelcome expansion of the federal footprint in education.

“As much as I want to see every single child in America have school choice, it is just not appropriate for the federal government to be using new dollars and new programs to push states in that direction,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You need local buy-in for these school-choice options to really be supported and viable in the long run.”

Trump and DeVos are seeking to increase the federal investment in charter schools by 50 percent, bringing the total appropriation to $500 million per year. They also want to establish a new $250 million fund to expand and study private-school vouchers, and they want to dole out $1 billion in grants to school districts to adopt policies that allow tax dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice.

In a speech Monday night, DeVos called the push for school choice “right” and “just” and an opportunity to “drag American education out of the Stone Age and into the future.” She referred to her critics as “flat-earthers” and said that while the federal government would never force states to adopt choice-friendly policies, those who opt out are making a “terrible mistake.”