You might think that it would be a matter of course for the education secretary to provide direct answers to direct questions about education or education policy. As it turns out, that is often not the case with Betsy DeVos.
The secretary’s non-answers come in different forms.
Sometimes, for example, she offers a response that deliberately doesn’t answer the precise question, as she did on Friday, when she was asked about her views on climate change and whether human activity has affected it.
The issue was raised after President Trump pulled the United States out of the landmark Paris climate agreement on Thursday and DeVos issued a statement the same day applauding it. (Trump, according to Vox, has expressed skepticism about climate change in tweets around 115 times since 2011.)
I asked the Education Department whether DeVos believed the climate is changing and human activity has played a role and received no answer. My Post colleague Emma Brown asked DeVos the same thing to DeVos on Friday, when the education secretary visited a D.C. charter school.
Brown said that after DeVos refused to comment on the extent to which human activity has driven climate change, the education secretary repeated her support for Trump’s decision, saying that he had “made good on a promise to ensure that the American people are not subject to overreach” and “fulfilled a commitment to keep America first and to focus on American jobs.”
When reporters kept asking her about her own climate-change views, she responded: “Certainly, the climate changes. Yes.”
Asked what should be done about it, she responded: “I don’t have any answer. I’m here to talk about students in schools today.”
Apparently she doesn’t think the public has a right to know what the education secretary thinks on a seminal scientific issue of our time.
Sometimes she avoids direct questions by giving an answer to a seemingly different question. For example, Joy Resmovits of the Los Angeles Times asked whether it is a problem that students of color and students with disabilities have higher rates of discipline than other students:
Often, DeVos will skirt the main point of a query and lead the conversation to her favorite education topic, giving parents choices other than their neighborhood traditional public school. It happened, for example, during her May appearance before the House subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies to testify about the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal. The proposed budget would cut $10.6 billion — or more than 13 percent — from education programs and reinvest $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting school choice.
When Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) asked her specifically if she would tell a voucher school that it could not refuse to accept African American students, she would not give a direct response. Then, as I wrote in this piece:
Clark interrupted, saying: “So if I understand your testimony — I want to make sure I get this right. There is no situation of discrimination or exclusion that if a state approved it for its voucher program that you would step in and say that’s not how we are going to use our federal dollars?”
DeVos said she didn’t want to answer a hypothetical question. Clark said it wasn’t hypothetical, and asked if she saw any circumstance that the federal government would tell a state that it could not allow a private voucher school to discriminate against students.
At that point time expired, but DeVos was allowed to respond.
DeVos: “I go back to the bottom line — is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus. And states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions.”
Other times, she and her aides simply don’t acknowledge the question and provide no answer.
DeVos herself did that, for example, during her now-infamous Jan. 17 Senate confirmation hearing, when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked her about a key debate in education — whether test scores should be used to measure student proficiency or student growth. Apparently not knowing how to respond, she just stared at him.
At that hearing, DeVos did not provide direct answers to questions about federal protections for students with disabilities, whether guns should be in classrooms and a number of other topics. Here’s just one example, as I wrote in this piece,
It can also be hard getting an answer to a simple question from the Education Department. A query, for example, about why the secretary declined to address the Education Writers Association annual conference as past secretaries had done went unanswered. So did others — to mention just a few — about whether there was an accessible archive of the secretary’s public schedules, how the department selected schools for DeVos to visit, and whether the department could explain a line in one of her speeches about the federal role in education.
Recently, the department did provide a detailed response to a question about why DeVos was refusing to reconsider dozens of applications for funding grants to help disadvantaged students that had been rejected earlier because they were not formatted properly. One application, from the University of Montana’s Upward Bound program — which helps low-income and first-generation college students — was tossed out because one of the 65 pages in its grant application was not double-spaced. Here’s the emailed response:
The Secretary shares in the frustration of those whose applications were rejected for consideration for not following formatting guidelines and has issued a new Department-wide policy that program offices may not reject grant applications based on simple formatting issues going forward.
Unfortunately, the Department’s new directive cannot be applied retroactively for several reasons:
• First, the Department would have to reopen the competition and would have to permit any eligible party (including ineligible applicants) to submit (or resubmit) their applications.
That means opening the competition back up to old applicants, new applicants and those who were originally deemed eligible for review but did not receive a high enough score to receive a grant
• Second, many of the current Upward Bound grants expire on May 31, 2017.
If the Department delays this competition to accommodate those deemed ineligible, it will not be able to meet the June 1, 2017, congressional deadline for announcing the grants.
In addition, reopening the competition would pose a serious risk of failing to award funds by the end of the fiscal year and programs could face a lapse in funding (despite having submitted an eligible application that fully conformed with all of the NIA’s requirements).
• Third, the Notices Inviting Applications (NIAs) posted in the Federal Register specifically stated that the Department would reject any application that did not comply with the content and formatting standards or exceeded the page limit.
Additional Information: 77 or 5 percent of 1,592 grant applications were rejected due to formatting guidelines issued by the previous administration.
The Secretary wholeheartedly agrees that bureaucratic red tape shouldn’t get in the way of helping students. She has changed the prior administration’s rule going forward so that the Department will focus on the merits of grant applications and not formatting technicalities
But a short time after the above email was sent, the Education Department announced that DeVos had actually changed her mind and was taking another look at the applications. It released a May 24 statement saying:
Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the Department will read and score applications for the Upward Bound grant program that were deemed ineligible under technical formatting rules issued by the previous Administration. The flexibility to consider these applications was made possible by the 2017 Omnibus spending bill.
After announcing the change at today’s House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education hearing, Secretary DeVos issued the following statement:
“With the 2017 Omnibus spending bill, Congress provided us with the flexibility to review all of the applications previously deemed ineligible due to technical formatting requirements. Going forward, I have directed all Department staff to allow flexibility on formatting and other technical elements on all grant applications. Bureaucratic red tape should never get in the way of helping students.”
Given the detailed explanation about why she couldn’t review the applications, I asked the Education Department to explain what prompted her change of heart. There was no response.