Dems slam DeVos' proposed cuts to Special Olympics, other programs

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the budget on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Washington — House Democrats on Tuesday blasted the latest budget proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that would cut nearly $7 billion or 10 percent of spending from the department. 

They focused in part on zeroing out funding for the Special Olympics sports program for disabled students and trimming special education grants to states, but also pressed DeVos on her proposed rule changes on campus sexual misconduct and her decision to rescind discipline guidance to schools meant to protect students of color. 

DeVos, a school choice advocate from the Grand Rapids area, said her department had to make "difficult decisions" but defended the cuts as part of a Trump administration effort to cut the federal deficit and debt.

"I believe this budget is cruel, and I believe that it is reckless. I believe that it will hurt the middle class and working, low-income families that most need our help," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on education. 

"That leaves me with a very serious question for you: How can you support this budget? ... Shame on you. This is your watch."

DeLauro also called DeVos' proposal for a $5 billion annual effort to fund private-school voucher programs an unregulated, unaccountable "tax scheme" that would "undermine our public school programs." 

"I do not understand how you can support this budget and be the secretary of education. This budget under-funds education at every turn," DeLauro said. 

DeVos in her testimony noted her proposed cuts are similar to last year's proposed reductions and the year before. 

"I acknowledge that you rejected those recommendations. I also acknowledge that it’s easier to keep spending, to keep saying 'yes' and to keep saddling tomorrow’s generations with today’s growing debt," DeVos said in prepared remarks.

"But, as it’s been said, the government will 'run out of other people’s money.'"

DeVos also noted her $5 billion school choice initiative would provide federal tax credits for donations to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to school students and not to school buildings themselves.

She stressed that no one is "coercing" anyone to give or states or families to participate. 

"Since the proposal relies entirely on voluntary contributions to nonprofit organizations, it won’t take a single dollar from local public school teachers or public school students," DeVos said. 

A former charter school administrator, Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, thanked DeVos for her advocacy on school choice. 

"If you're a parent in an area where you don't have a school district where you feel your children are safe or they aren't meeting the needs academically, I would think this would be a big positive for them," Moolenaar said. 

Special education proposal

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, criticized DeVos for her proposal to eliminate $17.6 million in funding for Special Olympics education programs. She also suggested cutting the programs last year. 

"Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut, Madame Secretary?" Pocan asked. 

"Let me just say again, we had to make some difficult decisions with this budget —" DeVos said. 

"This is a question on how many kids. It's 272,000," Pocan said. 

DeVos said Special Olympics is an "awesome organization" but one that's well-supported by the philanthropic sector, as well. 

Pocan also highlighted a 26 percent cut to special education grants to states from $3 million to $2.2 million, as well as cuts affecting programs for the deaf and blind. 

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the committee's top Republican, praised proposed investment in programs for children with special needs and disabilities, for Native American and rural education, and to support English learners and charter schools. 

But Cole also expressed concerns about about proposed cuts to 12 department programs, including some he described as "shortsighted." 

A historian and former educator, Cole said he was particularly disappointed to see the budget line for American history and civics education proposed for termination. 

"I think that it may be time in our country especially we need more understanding of civics and our shared history," Cole said. 

Several lawmakers said they did support DeVos' proposal to expand the use of Pell grants for short-term apprenticeship programs, workforce development and career and technical education.

Discipline policy questioned

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, challenged DeVos on why she rescinded guidance on school discipline after the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education found that students of color are suspended three times more than white students.

“We put into place some requirements that would begin to turn this around, and you rescinded those requirements,” Lee said.

DeVos said children should not be disciplined differently based on race and if they are “it’s discrimination.” But the guidance letter issued under the Obama administration “amounted to quotas,” DeVos added.  

Lee disagreed.

“You go to any community of color where you have schools that are trying, with minimal resources, to provide the best education they can and you will see what is taking place,” Lee said.

“So, this did not amount of quotas. This amounted to providing those tools and guidance to make sure that students’ civil rights are protected.”

DeVos replied: “Every community needs to be able to handle their classrooms and discipline in the way that works for them.”

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts, noted DeVos' school safety report cited research suggesting that the racial disparity in discipline and suspensions "reflects longstanding behavioral differences between youth." 

"That's the research that you have cited in your report, concluding that apparently it is not racial discrimination in discipline, but there are some 'characteristics' of black children that — from this report — start very early in life, well before they get to the classroom," Clark said. 

"Are you saying when you quote this report, are you saying black children are just more of a discipline problem?" 

DeVos replied, "Well, Congresswoman, I've said it before and I'll say it again: No student, no child, should be treated or disciplined differently based on their skin color, race or their national origin." 

"Children should never be discriminated against," she added. 

Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., left, accompanied by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., right, speaks as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appears before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the budget on Capitol Hill.

DeLauro asked DeVos about a report by an education advocacy group that found the department did not provide effective oversight of states that receive charter school funding, and that the government wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never opened or have "precipitously" closed.

Charter schools are a form of independent public schools. 

"It sounds like you are saying, 'This is not our job.' Can you explain how you think not stopping known waste fraud and abuse in the Charter School Program is not the department's job?" DeLauro said.

DeVos said her department is "very aware" of the issues raised by the report. 

"It actually covers practices that long predate this administration," DeVos said. 

"We are very keen to ensure that the concerns raised are addressed," adding that she's looking to Congress to authorize "more flexibility" for charter schools.

Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida, tried to engage DeVos in discussion about her proposed guidelines for how colleges should handle campus sexual misconduct.

"I appreciate and respect your desire to continue down this path of questioning but you know we are in the process of rule-making," DeVos said. "It would be inappropriate for me to comment and answer your questions in the way you are posing them."

Frankel pressed on about the idea that a university wouldn't be liable to investigate a sexual assault that occurs off campus, say, at a fraternity house. 

“I don’t really understand that,” Frankel said. “If the frat is on the campus or the frat is across the streets, it seems to me the potential harm to the victim is the same.”

She suggested the student might drop out of school, rather than be forced to sit next to his or her perpetrator in class, opening the school to a potential violation of Title IX.

“Think about it,” Frankel said. 

"Thank you," DeVos replied.