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)

The Republican chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee expressed deep skepticism Tuesday that President Trump’s education budget would survive congressional scrutiny, saying that proposals for drastic cuts in crucial programs would run into bipartisan opposition.

“This is a difficult budget request to defend,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a hearing held by the subcommittee on labor, health and human services. “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.”

DeVos appeared on Capitol Hill to argue for a proposal to slash spending for numerous programs while boosting funds for private school vouchers and other school choice initiatives.

Trump seeks to slash $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives, including after-school programs, teacher training, and career and technical education. His proposal calls for reinvesting $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting his top education priority: school choice, including $250 million for vouchers to help students attend private and religious schools. The net result would a  13.6 percent reduction in spending in the next fiscal year.

The administration also is seeking far-reaching changes­ to student aid programs, including the elimination of subsidized loans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness and a halving of the federal work-study program that helps college students earn money to support themselves while in school.

Among the programs Trump targeted for cuts: Special Olympics; 21st Century Learning Centers, which support after-school programs; and TRIO, a constellation of programs to support low-income and first-generation college students.

“I think the significant cuts to things like career and technical education, TRIO and federal work study will make it harder for students to get into and complete college and find well-paying jobs,” Blunt said. “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.”

Several other senators, Republicans and Democrats, also grilled DeVos on the spending plan.

DeVos said the proposal aimed to fund programs that work but to cut from those that don’t. She said the administration wants to shift responsibility for funding some programs to states and school systems.

“Some of the programs that have been recommended for scaling back or cutting are duplicative. Some are ineffective,” DeVos said in response to questions from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) . “And some could be better supported by state or local or philanthropic efforts.”

Last month DeVos stoked controversy when she declined to answer questions from House members on whether she would block federal funds from private schools that discriminate against gay and transgender students. The issue has taken on new urgency because of the administration’s support of vouchers.

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)

DeVos again refused Tuesday to say whether she would bar discrimination based on religion or on sexual orientation in private schools that receive federal funds. Researchers have found that some states with voucher programs allow taxpayer dollars to flow to schools that deny admission to gay and transgender students, or students with LGBT parents.

In February, DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that directed schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that align with the gender they identify with.  She indicated Tuesday that her department would not issue such guidance letters, a tactic the previous administration used to tighten enforcement of what it viewed as civil rights violations in schools that received federal funds. 

“Are you saying that if you have private schools — private schools generally set their own admissions policy — that they will not be allowed to discriminate against LGBT students?” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

“Senator, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law,” DeVos said. Merkley responded the law was “foggy” on the issue, and asked her to clarify whether she believed federal law would bar discrimination. She said: “On area where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to issue decrees.”