The contentious confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, cemented concerns among civil rights advocates that she would either ignore or dismiss the Education Department’s role as chief enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws in schools.
DeVos declined to say during the hearing Tuesday whether she would enforce new regulations meant to hold schools accountable for educating all students. She passed up an opportunity to reassure Democrats concerned about a downsizing of the Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for investigating allegations of discrimination in the nation’s K-12 schools and colleges.
She indicated there’s a good chance that she’ll oversee a significant shift away from the Obama administration’s approach to handling sexual assault, which has forced schools to more aggressively investigate incidents and protect survivors’ access to education. And she waffled on a federal civil rights law meant to protect students with disabilities; at one point she said it should be up to states whether to comply, and she later said that she had been “confused” about the law.
“She was very clearly making no commitment to enforcing federal laws, and that’s disqualifying. That’s an unwillingness to do the job she has applied for,” said Liz King of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 groups. The Leadership Conference is urging senators to reject DeVos, the first time the organization has objected to an education secretary nominee.
Through what she said and didn’t say about civil rights Tuesday, DeVos further alienated Democrats who were already skeptical of her fitness for the job. Republicans, however — who have praised DeVos’s willingness to shrink the federal footprint in education and take on teachers unions — showed no signs of withdrawing their support, meaning it appears DeVos almost certainly will be confirmed.
“I think she would be an excellent secretary of education,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said at the hearing.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said Wednesday that nothing about the hearing changed his positive impression of DeVos. “She seemed pretty knowledgeable,” Isakson said.
DeVos is a Michigan billionaire who has used her fortune and political connections to lobby for charter schools and, especially, for taxpayer-funded vouchers that allow parents to take public money to help pay for tuition when their children attend private and religious schools.
Her efforts to expand vouchers are of particular concern to many disability-rights advocates, concerns that DeVos stoked Tuesday in several exchanges, including with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).
Advocates argue that vouchers encourage segregation of students with disabilities and drain public schools of the resources they need. They also object to voucher programs that require students with disabilities to sign away their rights under a federal civil rights law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that guarantees a free appropriate public education.
The federal government gives states about $13 billion annually for special education, and the Education Department is responsible for ensuring that states meet their obligations under the law.
DeVos told Collins she would explore the possibility of turning IDEA funds — which currently go to states and school districts — into vouchers that could follow students to private schools.
Speaking with Kaine, she seemed to not understand IDEA or to believe that private schools receiving federal funds should not have to abide by the law’s requirements. She said that states should be able to decide whether schools receiving public funds must follow the requirements of the law; challenged by Hassan to clarify her views, DeVos said she “may have confused” the fact that IDEA is a federal civil rights law.
Kaine said that in the day since the hearing, he has heard more concerns about DeVos from people who work with children with disabilities than any other group.
“I don’t think she believes that private institutions in a voucher system should have to follow the accountability rules that public schools have to,” he said. “She would feel like it would be okay for them to get the money but they don’t have to follow the same rules.”
Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said she expected DeVos to have been better prepared to answer questions about IDEA. “Unless her ideology is such that she doesn’t believe in the role of federal laws, and believing in the role of federal laws isn’t an option for a secretary,” Henderson said. “You couldn’t tell from her testimony whether it was ideology or ignorance.”
A spokesperson for Trump’s transition team said that DeVos knows that IDEA is a federal law.
Asked whether DeVos believes that private schools taking federal funds should be exempt from IDEA requirements, the transition spokesperson said DeVos “believes that IDEA should be implemented as enacted, which includes an opportunity for parents to seek a different option if their local assigned school is not serving their children’s needs.”
Hassan, whose son has a severe disability, told DeVos she was concerned that children with disabilities who receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private school are vulnerable to losing IDEA protections they would have if they stayed in public school. She asked DeVos for her view on maintaining legal protections for voucher students, and DeVos began her answer by saying she was glad that Hassan had been able to “find the right opportunity” for her son.
Hassan interrupted. “I had the opportunity to send him to the same public school that my daughter went to because the law required that that school provide him resources that were never provided before that law was passed,” Hassan said. “The question is, will you enforce the law with regard to students with disabilities” who get a voucher to go to a private school, which then refuses to provide them with services they deserve?
DeVos did not answer directly.
In an interview Wednesday, Hassan said she worries that DeVos “didn’t seem to understand” that IDEA is a federal law. “I still don’t have a sense that she understands education to be the civil right that it is,” she said.
Many voucher advocates say that IDEA was written in an age when children were compelled to attend assigned public schools. They argue private schools accepting vouchers should not necessarily be subject to the law because embedded in vouchers is a different kind of accountability, accountability to parents that can choose to take their children, and their tax dollars, elsewhere.
Chris Haney, a mother of two sons who receive special education services at public schools in the Philadelphia suburbs, said DeVos’s answers on special education showed she is not fit for the position. Haney was one of several parents, teachers, students and education advocates who spoke Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference opposing DeVos.
“I think she’s patently unqualified for the job,” Haney said. “She knows nothing about public schools.”
Democrats and advocates also decried DeVos’s unwillingness to commit to continuing the Obama administration’s six-year campaign to combat sexual assault in schools and on college campuses.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said Wednesday he would vote against DeVos’s nomination, in part because she said during her hearing that it was “premature” to say whether she would uphold the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
In 2011, the Obama administration told officials that they were obligated under Title IX to respond promptly to reports of sexual violence and that they must use a standard of “preponderance of the evidence” when determining whether an assault occurred.
Many Republicans say the OCR letter is a prime example of what they call the Obama administration’s overreach on civil rights. Democrats hailed the letter as crucial to advancing a crusade against sexual assault that has profoundly affected college policies and culture.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has been sharply critical of DeVos, said she was unsettled by the nominee’s answers on sexual assault.
“It’s extremely important that they continue the work that we started,” she said. “I did not get a commitment from her.”