WASHINGTON - Betsy DeVos said something somewhat astounding Tuesday for a U.S. education secretary.
DeVos testified before a House appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill and was challenged on her 2019 budget proposal - with not only Democrats but Republicans opposed to some key provisions. They also challenged her on comments she made during a recent tough "60 Minutes" interview.
DeVos testified for more than two hours about a range of subjects, including:
- Her view on whether the federal government should pay for programs to arm and train teachers even if most educators and parents don't support it. (She wouldn't say.)
- What role the federal government should play in implementing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. (She was unclear.)
- Whether she would meet with survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school when those students are in Washington this weekend for a march against gun violence. (She said she didn't know her schedule but wanted to meet them at some time in Parkland.)
- Whether she recognized that black students in public schools are disproportionately disciplined - 3.8 times as much as white students. (She said, "I've seen the data.")
- And whether, in light of gun violence, she had reconsidered her budget's proposal to eliminate funding for after-school programs. (She said there is "no data to show that they are effective in what the stated goal has been" but was challenged by Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., who noted: "What do you mean there is no data? There is study after study after study.")
She was also asked about several of her statements on "60 Minutes," when CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl asked pointed questions about DeVos's views of public education and at one point suggested the education secretary visit underperforming public schools to learn about their problems. DeVos responded during that interview, "Maybe I should."
During Tuesday's House hearing, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., referred to that comment, saying, "You made a comment just recently that you haven't visited any poor-performing schools."
She responded: "As secretary, I have made a point of visiting schools that are doing things creatively, innovatively, out-of-the-box thinking. Um, I think it would be important to visit some poor-performing schools. I think the question is, 'Will they let me in?' "
To repeat, the education secretary of the United States asked whether poor-performing public schools would allow her to enter. She wasn't joking.
That as much as anything underscores the tension between the public school community in the United States and DeVos, who in the past has called traditional public schools "a dead end." Critics - including some of the Democratic legislators who questioned her Tuesday - say she wants to privatize public education.
DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has spent decades working to promote charter schools and voucher programs, has made clear that her priority is promoting alternatives to traditional public schools. Her 2019 budget proposal seeks $1 billion in new funding for choice programs, including vouchers, which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition. Congress rejected a similar request from the Trump administration last year.
DeVos has visited a variety of schools during her 13-month tenure as education secretary, including traditional public schools, charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated) and voucher schools. Although the vast majority of U.S. schoolchildren attend traditional public schools, she has visited charters and private schools at a far higher rate than any other education secretary.
Pocan asked DeVos whether she would be willing to go with him to a low-performing voucher school in Wisconsin and noted that 140 voucher schools in the state could not be given a state rating because they would not provide data about their students. He asked DeVos: "Do you think that's right?"
During a back-and-forth in which they talked over each other, she said, "I think parents and taxpayers should have more information, not less," but said that it was up to states to decide how much information they require for accountability measures and that she wouldn't second-guess the Wisconsin legislature.
-Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.