After 16 months on the job, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made her first appearance in front of the House Education and Workforce Committee yesterday to testify on the topic of “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Education.”
Many members of the committee used the hearing as an opportunity to question DeVos on some of her most harmful policies, including prioritizing private school vouchers over public schools. Unsurprisingly, DeVos doubled down on her support for vouchers and her lack of concern about the growing trend of using religion to discriminate.
Several members of the committee asked questions about the secretary’s support for private school vouchers. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) asked how DeVos could continue to support vouchers when the evidence shows that they do not improve – and can in some cases hurt – students’ academic achievement. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) noted that private school voucher programs force the government to fund two systems of education: one public and one private. As usual, DeVos brushed off these criticisms and reiterated her support for vouchers.
Some members specifically asked DeVos about her support for legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) to create a new federally funded voucher scheme for military-connected students using Impact Aid, which is a source of funding that supports school districts affected by the presence of tax-exempt federal land like military installations, national forests and American Indian reservations. DeVos assured Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) that she supported keeping Impact Aid as is, rather than diverting it to private school vouchers. And later, when asked by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) if she supported Banks’ legislation, DeVos stated that she did not support funding vouchers with Impact Aid.
AU has been fighting back against Banks’ legislation for months, and especially against its inclusion as part of a must-pass bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Any type of private school voucher program, whether funded with Impact Aid or any other source of government funding, would drain critical funding from our public schools to fund private, often religious schools. Vouchers like these undermine our public schools and threaten religious freedom.
DeVos’ opposition to support specific voucher legislation does not signal a shift in priority; rather it is likely a reaction to the groundswell of opposition from the military community against this proposal. Indeed, later in the hearing, DeVos assured Banks that she supported the idea of vouchers for military-connected students if there were a different funding source. It’s clear that she continues to see her role as head of the Department of Education as a platform for advocating for new federally funded voucher programs.
There were other questions, too, that focused on DeVos’ and the department’s failure to protect religious freedom. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) pushed back against DeVos’ recent remarks about state no-aid provisions, which are amendments in state constitutions that prevent taxpayer money from being funneled to religious schools and organizations. She wrongly stated that these provisions were “bigoted” and should be repealed. Voucher proponents like DeVos have been pushing that false narrative as a means of paving the way toward more state voucher programs. But no-aid provisions are an important safeguard to prevent government funding of all religious organizations and schools – whether Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other faiths – and they protect the separation of church and state.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) asked about a recent incident in Oregon where a public school discriminated against LGBTQ students and forced students to read the Bible as punishment, and whether the department’s Office of Civil Rights would be investigating it. Although DeVos only stated that the department would look into it, Bonamici hinted at a bigger question: What is the department doing to ensure that our public schools are open and accepting of all students, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other factor? To many, DeVos’ answer is not enough.
At AU, we know it’s important to hold DeVos and the Department of Education accountable, and we’re glad to see many representatives from both parties asking her tough questions. We will continue to oppose DeVos’ agenda to push for new and expanded voucher programs across the country, and to work to make sure that our public schools are welcoming places for all students. For more on vouchers, see AU’s work with the National Coalition for Public Education at NoVouchers.org.
(Photo credit: Screenshot of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.)