Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared before the House Education Committee on Tuesday to discuss the policies and priorities of the department she leads, but there were some things she just wouldn’t — or couldn’t — say.
DeVos has been running the department for a little more than a year, and the controversy that marked the start of her tenure — her Senate confirmation was secured only after Mike Pence became the first vice president in history to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee — has not dissipated.
There’s more than one reason for this: Critics see her lack of experience with public education as a problem. They also point to her attitude about government — she once said “government sucks” — and her avid support for programs that support privatizing public education.
She was more prepared for Tuesday’s oversight hearing than she was for her somewhat disastrous confirmation hearing in January 2017 — when she revealed ignorance on fundamental education issues. But there were still basic matters she declined to directly address. Here are five of them.
1) DeVos could not explain the mission of the department’s Office for Civil Rights.
DeVos has rolled back or is in the process of delaying or gutting some Obama-era guidance and regulations that aimed to protect the rights of some minority groups, including LGBTQ students. The Trump administration’s budget proposals have called for funding cuts to the Office for Civil Rights in the Education Department, but Congress has overruled that. DeVos has changed the focus of the office, limiting the complaints it will address and reining in the systemic action favored by the Obama administration.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) told DeVos that she was concerned about the weak performance of the Office for Civil Rights. Then she asked DeVos whether she knew the mission of that office.
DEVOS: The Office for Civil Rights is committed to protecting the civil rights as determined under the law of this land. And we do so proudly and with great focus each day.
FUDGE: That’s not the mission statement. Do you know what it is?
DEVOS: I have not . . . .
FUDGE: That’s okay.
DEVOS: I have not memorized the mission statement.
FUDGE: That’s okay. Please explain for me what you would believe to be vigorous enforcement of civil rights in the context of schools today.
DEVOS: It would be following the law and enforcing the law as stated . . . .
FUDGE: So how do you do it if you continue to try to dismantle and defund the office? I’m not understanding.
DEVOS: We haven’t done any such thing.
FUDGE: I think I’ve heard enough.
Later, Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) said, “The mission of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through all the nation.”
2) DeVos did not provide a single detail about any plan she might have to promote inclusivity and access to an appropriate education for students with disabilities. And she wouldn’t commit to pushing Congress to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, which requires public schools to provide free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities.
During her 2017 confirmation hearing, DeVos got in trouble when she said that states should have the right to decide whether to enforce IDEA. States don’t have that right because federal law mandates they enforce it. Later, she said she “may have confused it” when told IDEA is a federal civil rights law.
IDEA, like many other programs Congress has approved and mandated to the states, has never been fully funded. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told DeVos he had a bill to fully fund the law and then asked her:
POLIS: I’d like to know about your plans to promote inclusivity and access to students with disabilities.
DEVOS: I am very much committed to upholding the provisions of IDEA and continue to be focused on the fact that we need to ensure that all students with disabilities have the opportunities to pursue their education . . . .
POLIS: Will you work with Congress to fully fund IDEA?
DEVOS: I certainly will work with Congress to continue to be focused on the needs of those students.
3) DeVos refused to directly address questions from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) about potential conflicts of interest in a pilot student-aid program.
Takano asked her about three department employees with extensive experience in the banking and credit-card industries who are working on implementing a prepaid student-aid card and could be involved with selecting the contractor.
TAKANO: Do you agree it would be a serious conflict of interest if these three people were involved in selecting the financial firm that will carry out the program?
DEVOS: I am confident in the FSA [Financial Student Aid] team that is tasked with implementing this pilot program, that the appropriate delineation of duties are in place and that we are going to advance the program.
TAKANO: Do you agree that these particular individuals who had recent close ties to those institutions, if they were to be involved in selecting the institution that would benefit from the program, that would be a conflict of interest?
DEVOS: All of those who work within the Department of Education take their ethics agreements very seriously and are bound to them and operate accordingly.
TAKANO: I find your answer not really responsive, but let me move on. Have these three people recused themselves for [the] decision-making process?
DEVOS: As I said, all of the individuals within the department take their ethics agreements . . . .
TAKANO: I take it you are not going to respond to my question.
4) A legislator asked DeVos whether she would work with more urgency on her Federal Commission on School Safety to come up with recommendations to make school campuses safer after a rash of mass shootings.
In prepared testimony that she delivered to the committee before the hearing, DeVos said:
“Our commitment to every student’s success is one we must renew every day, but first we must ensure our children are safe at school. When evil visited Parkland, Florida, it shocked us. It angers us. And it pains us. We resolved to work so no such tragedy occurs again.
“This administration is committed to swift action to keep our nation’s students and teachers safe at school. I’m pleased that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary [of Health and Human Services] Alex Azar and Secretary [of Homeland Security] Kirstjen Nielsen join me in this effort. Our work begins with the premise that the primary responsibility for the physical security of schools rests with states and local communities. That’s why the Federal Commission on School Safety is seeking input from local communities, students, parents, teachers, school safety personnel, administrators, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, school counselors — anyone who is focused on identifying and elevating solutions.”
But after promising swift action in that testimony, she wouldn’t commit to pushing the work of the commission faster than originally planned. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) noted that Monday was the 21st anniversary of a high school shooting by a 15-year-old in her state and said “that community is still grieving.”
BONAMICI: You said the Commission on School Safety recommendations will be out by year end. It’s only May. Students today are telling me they walk into a classroom and the first thing they do is look for where they can hide and how they can escape. . . . Will you please expedite the work of the commission?
DEVOS: We are working very quickly to do the work of the commission, and as I said in my opening statement, I have directed my department to do everything within the law to support the schools as requested under the omnibus bill that expands some of the funding for, and we encourage schools to take advantage of that opportunity today.
BONAMICI: I hope we see meaningful recommendations soon.
5) Sablan asked her about access to higher education in U.S. territories, and she couldn’t quite answer his question.
SABLAN: Does every state and territory have four-year institutions of higher education?
DEVOS: Every state and territory?
SABLAN: Do they? Do you know?
DEVOS: I know that some of the territories do.
SABLAN: . . . Not all, right? . . .
DEVOS: Why don’t you tell me?
SABLAN: Okay, I will.
The answer: They all don’t.