On some of the key questions, DeVos seemed unaware of the answer, or if she did know, she didn’t choose to share it in any definitive way. Those included why the department had eliminated some funding West Virginia uses to combat opioid addiction affecting students. She was asked whether school officials can report undocumented students to federal authorities, and whether her Federal Commission on School Safety will look at the role of guns. She also was asked why the Trump administration should not help local communities and states improve decrepit public schools.
Here are five instances in which DeVos attempted to skirt giving direct answers during the hearing before the subcommittee that presides over education appropriations:
• Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) raised controversial remarks DeVos made recently about whether principals and teachers are permitted by federal law to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report undocumented immigrant students. She said at a House hearing on May 23 that it was a “school decision” or a “local community decision” about whether school officials could report these students to the agency.
She was slammed by civil rights groups that said federal law did not, in fact, allow school officials to do so, and Murphy wanted to hear her clarify her remarks. He asked her a yes-or-no question, but it took five attempts to get her to answer — and even then, she didn’t give a definitive response. Here’s how it went:
MURPHY: So let me ask a question again, is it okay — you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance and want to understand what the law is — is it okay for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?
DEVOS: I think a school is a place for students to be able to learn, and they should be protected there.
MURPHY: Is that a — you seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer, and I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.
DEVOS: I think educators know in their hearts they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.
MURPHY: It’s not — why are you so — why are you not answering the question?
DEVOS: I think I am answering the question.
MURPHY: Well, the question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law?
DEVOS: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn. And so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.
MURPHY: So they can’t call ICE?
DEVOS: I don’t think they can.
That was the most Murphy was going to get her to say, so he moved on.
• In an exchange with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), DeVos first could not explain why the department’s 2019 budget proposal had zeroed out a program that West Virginia used to help students deal with the effects of opioid addiction in their homes. She tried to explain why the department had done so, and suggested the state could apply money from other programs to the opioid intervention.
But Manchin said he didn’t understand why the department had cut the money, or why DeVos thought other funding could be used, and she could not provide details to his satisfaction.
“Our educators are concerned,” he said, adding that it was “imperative” that the state’s program to identify and move out of harm’s way students affected by opioid addiction continue. He asked DeVos to have Education Department staff “get with” West Virginia officials to figure out how it could be done, because he didn’t know.
• Then, Manchin had another conversation with the secretary in which DeVos seemed not to understand some of the issues that face rural areas in West Virginia when it comes to expanding school choice. DeVos has pushed charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — and programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition. And she is a proponent of online learning.
Manchin said the federal Education Department was cutting money for basic education programs and boosting money for school choice options that rural areas of West Virginia could not pursue.
MANCHIN: In small rural states, the only choice we have is either improving the education we have or doing without. There’s not an option in some of the rural areas, so I’m concerned about the $3.6 billion that are being cut while at the same time they’re shifting $1.5 billion from critical education programs to school choice. That’s going to be very, very hard. So wouldn’t your choice program simply leave holes in our West Virginia — I mean, the way it is right now, our West Virginia school budget created by these proposed cuts is just going to leave a hole we can’t fill.
DEVOS: Well, sir, the proposal around choice really does offer rural districts opportunities to think differently and to meet students’ needs differently as well, and that’s really sort of the big picture.
MANCHIN: In West Virginia, we’re not trying to — we just can’t afford to start another education system. We don’t have the market where the private market is moving into that. All we’re doing is taking funds away from hopefully enhancing a system, making it better than what we have right now.
DEVOS: But sometimes you can think of choice differently. And I think we often think in terms of infrastructure and buildings, and in rural areas I understand that maybe the biggest challenge is maybe a school not able to offer some AP courses because they simply don’t have enough students. So offering course choice via a virtual classroom is an opportunity to . . .
MANCHIN: That would be great, except I don’t even have Internet connection in most of the rural areas and even cell service.
DeVos then said that some of the school choice funding could be used for connectivity issues. At that point, Manchin invited her to visit some rural areas in West Virginia so she could better understand the issues.
• During a back-and-forth with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), DeVos seemed not to know exactly what her Federal Commission on School Safety was directed to do by President Trump. Leahy asked DeVos whether the commission she leads will look at how school safety is affected by guns and gun violence.
“That is not part of the commission’s charge, per se,” she responded.
But it actually is. When Trump created the commission after the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., he asked it to look at a range of issues and make recommendations, including on age restrictions for certain firearms purchases.
Not long after the hearing, the Education Department sent a statement to reporters in an attempt to clarify DeVos’s remarks:
The secretary and the commission continue to look at all issues the President asked the committee to study and are focused on making recommendations that the agencies, states and local communities can implement. It’s important to note that the commission cannot create or amend current gun laws — that is the Congress’ job.
• During a conversation with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), DeVos could not directly answer why the federal government had no role in helping communities fix and maintain crumbling public school facilities so students are not trying to learn in buildings with collapsing ceilings.
Reed said funding to improve school infrastructure was not part of Trump’s infrastructure proposal, and he noted that the Education Department’s budget had no funding for that purpose either.
REED: The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our school facilities a D-plus rating, about a $30 billion gap between necessary repairs to bring them up to standard. And that’s certainly a level that can’t be supported by states and localities alone. … The kids are not being well educated not because they don’t have good teachers. It’s just when the windows are broken and the computers are damaged by rain and all those things. So just what are you doing to address this issue and improving school facilities? …
DEVOS: … As you know, the specifics around school infrastructure were not part of the [president’s] infrastructure proposal, and that really does not fall under the purview of the federal Department of Education. These issues are left to the state and local communities to deal with, and that’s where those are best addressed.
REED: The issue of addressing them goes to, just like highways, roads and bridges, yes, but without federal support they won’t be effectively addressed. We’re spending a lot of time here talking about educational reform, programmatic reform, enhancing teacher skills, etc., when kids are sitting in rooms where the ceilings are falling in, the windows are broken. And shouldn’t you be advocating that the president incorporate this in his infrastructure plan? That this is absolutely critical to education success?
DEVOS: Well, I absolutely think learning environments are important to students. But I also think that we can have an opportunity to think a little more broadly as well. I visited a school last week that is a public middle school located in a public museum. And the whole city is their classroom. And these are the kinds of approaches that I think more schools can be thinking about and utilizing, and I would encourage that because the world has changed.
REED: Madame secretary, that is a novel and unique experience. … Too many schools are just without basic maintenance and funds for rehabilitation, and it’s an issue that is an educational issue. You do not see the connection between a suitable school facility with adequate heat and windows and an education? That’s disconnected?
DEVOS: I do think that’s part of the educational experience.
Reed then asked her if she would advocate that the president include schools in federal infrastructure spending.
She replied: “Infrastructure is a state and local issue, and it’s a matter for those entities to address and deal with.”