Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) grilled Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on June 6, over whether she would prohibit private schools that receive federal funding from discriminating against students based on religion or sexual orientation. (Reuters)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday on Capitol Hill that she won’t offer protections to ensure that public money is not used by for-profit education companies to make their owners rich.

She also said that private schools accepting federal funds in a voucher program would have to follow federal laws but would not promise to protect LGBTQ or other students from discrimination if the law on the issue is foggy.

These were just some of the things DeVos said in defense of the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 Education Department budget, which cuts more than 13 percent, including programs favored by both Democrats and Republicans. After appearing May 24 before a House appropriations panel to talk about the proposed budget, this time she went before the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

And this time, DeVos was put on notice at the very start of the hearing that it was going to be a painful appearance. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican chairman, told her that the proposed budget proposal was unacceptable to his committee, saying:

“This is a difficult budget request to defend. I think it’s likely that the kinds of cuts that are proposed in this budget will not occur, so we need to fully understand your priorities and why they are your priorities.”

Other Republicans challenged her priorities, too, with some of them criticizing the budget for halving the work study program that helps students get through college, cutting a popular college preparation program called TRIO, and slashing funds for career and technical education. Blunt also cited “the outright elimination of several large formula grant programs — like the 21st Century Learning Centers — I think will be all but impossible to get through this committee.”

And Democrats went after her hard. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont called the budget proposal “abysmal.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that DeVos was throwing students “out into a market-driven system that seems mostly about enriching the salaries of the CEOs who run” for-profit education companies. And Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, accused DeVos of refusing to compromise or “work with us in good faith,” allowing potential conflicts of interest and ethics “to exist in your department,” and refusing to answer questions asked by Democrats — and that was just for starters.

In the past, the Michigan billionaire has been pretty blunt about a few things — that she thinks, for example, that traditional public schools are a “dead end” and that school choice is the most important reform — but sometimes she is vague, and it is hard to know if it is because she doesn’t know the answer, doesn’t want to answer for ideological reasons or just likes being vague. On Tuesday she was both direct in some answers — repeatedly bringing discussions around to her biggest priority, the right of parents to choose the education for their children — and vague in others. Here’s some of what happened:

  • She was asked repeatedly whether private schools that would be part of the administration’s proposed program to fund and study a new voucher program would be subject to federal discrimination and special education laws, and she repeatedly said, “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

But in an exchange with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), he noted that she did not accept his invitation to promise that she would protect LGBTQ students from discrimination if the federal law on the subject was “foggy.”

Merkley: Earlier you said if a charter school or private school gets a dollar of federal aid, they have to follow all the federal laws regarding discrimination. Is that correct?

DeVos: That’s correct.

Merkley: But those laws are somewhat foggy in that area. So I want to be absolutely clear about what you are saying. Are you saying that if you have a private school — private schools generally set their own admission policies — that they will not be allowed under your program to discriminate against LGBTQ students?

DeVos: Senator, I said it before and I’ll say it again, that schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.

Merkley: And I just said federal law is foggy. So in your understanding of federal law, will such discrimination be allowed?

DeVos: In areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts. …

The two talked over each other at this point about unsettled law, and then Merkley said: “You are refusing to answer the question. … I think you just said that where it is unsettled, that such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that is incorrect, please correct it for the record. How about discrimination based on religion? Will such discrimination be allowed with charter or private schools?”

DeVos: Again, for schools that receive federal funds, federal laws must be followed.

Merkley: Will such discrimination be allowed? Answer the question.

DeVos: Schools that get federal funds need to follow federal law.

Merkley: Okay, you are refusing to answer the question. I think it is very important for the public to know that today the secretary of education before this committee refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or ban discrimination  based on religion.

DeVos: Sir, that is not what I said. That is not what I said. Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form.

Merkley: Does your program ban such discrimination? Yes or no?

DeVos: What program are you talking about?

Merkley: Your charter school and private school grant program.

DeVos: As I said before, and I’ll say it again: Schools that get federal funds need to follow federal law, period.

  • She would not offer any protections on public funds that go to for-profit schools and companies.

Murphy asked DeVos about a plan by the administration to spend $1 billion in Title I funds for a school choice “portability” program. He specifically wanted to know in one exchange whether she would do anything to make for-profit education companies be more transparent in their operations or whether she would cap the sometimes huge salaries of their top officers.

What specific protections, he asked, would be in the proposal to make sure taxpayer dollars won’t end up “enriching the pockets” of  those who own for-profit schools?

DeVos: I think your question more broadly is better framed around, “What are students achieving?” And I think the question is not what the tax status is …

Murphy: … No, that was my question.

DeVos: … In in my view, the question is not the tax status of the school.

Murphy: You can have any view of my question you want. My question is, “Will there be protections on taxpayer dollars to make sure that the heads of these companies don’t end up becoming millionaires or billionaires off the operations of these schools?”

DeVos: If parents are making choices regardless of the tax status of the school to which they are sending them, whether it is a for-profit-managed institution or a not-for-profit, if students are achieving and parents are making the choices on behalf of their children, I think those are the better measures to be oriented around.

Murphy then said it was clear that she would institute no protections regarding for-profit schools. She did not respond.

  • DeVos said repeatedly that federal cuts to programs that senators believe help children can be made up by state and local governments and private entities because of new “flexibility” to create their own education plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor K-12 education law to No Child Left Behind.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii): You are imagining revenue not in evidence. You are imagining flexibility that does not exist at the local level. So to say, for instance, 21st Century Learning Centers or what is happening in career and technical education, or these dollars that support $40,000 teachers across the United States, to say that will be handled by the private sector, that will be handled through flexibility, you reduce the flexibility that education systems have by reducing the funding that they have. And it’s sort of a rhetorical device to say they will be basking in new flexibility. But anybody who runs a government or anybody who runs a school doesn’t want flexibility. They want resources. …

DeVos: Actually, what I’ve heard from a lot of state and local leaders is that they do want and need flexibility.

In other testimony:

  •  When Murray asked her why the Office of Civil Rights was being cut by some 60 positions, DeVos said the funding of the agency was not being cut. They then had a debate about which numbers were being used to determine whether there was a cut. But DeVos did not deny that positions were being cut.
  • When Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told her it was difficult for families in rural areas to exercise school choice, and he proposed allowing institutions of higher education to open alternative schools, she said she hoped the students in those areas would be provided with more opportunities to engage in virtual learning.

Bonus quote: Murphy said the following in reference to a comment by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) that choosing a school should be like going to the store to choose from six kinds of mayonnaise:

“Education is not mayonnaise, and, frankly, the day we start treating the education of our children like we do the marketing of a condiment is the day we have given up on our kids.”