President Donald J. Trump has proposed a federal budget for 2019 that contains a plan to divert $1 billion in tax funds to pay for private school vouchers. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before Congress yesterday and again failed to give coherent answers for why the administration is prioritizing vouchers instead of public education.

Thankfully, several members of Congress subjected DeVos to some tough questioning. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was among those who demanded to know why Trump’s budget slashes the Department of Education’s overall funding yet proposes $1 billion to fund private school vouchers.

“We shouldn’t be siphoning off federal dollars to pay for vouchers,” DeLauro told DeVos.

We agree. Trump and DeVos want to prioritize voucher programs by diverting desperately needed public funds away from public schools and funneling the money toward private, mostly religious schools. Public dollars should fund public schools, which educate 90 percent of American children. Taxpayers can’t afford to fund two education systems – one public and one private.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) pressed DeVos about a 2017 GAO report that shows private schools taking part in voucher programs fail to give accurate information to parents of students with disabilities about the rights they forfeit by enrolling in such schools. For example, the GAO report found that 83 percent of students enrolled in a program specifically serving students with disabilities were provided either no information or inaccurate information about how enrolling in a private school voucher program would mean a loss for those students of their Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) rights.

Rep. Lowey questioned DeVos on why the Department of Education hasn’t addressed this problem. In response, DeVos shifted the responsibility from the federal government to the states, admitting that IDEA rights do not extend to students in state private school voucher programs.

DeVos also did not adequately answer a question from U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) on why our public dollars should support voucher programs, like the one in Wisconsin that fund failing schools with few accountability mechanisms.

Rather than admit that there should be accountability standards for voucher programs, DeVos again defaulted to the answer that she supports parents’ and students’ rights to make individual choices.

Perhaps the biggest exchange came when U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) asked DeVos why federal dollars are going to private voucher schools that don’t follow the same civil rights laws as our public schools. 

“I cannot find a single state that protects LGBT students within voucher programs,” Clark said.

DeVos tried to wiggle out of an answer as she did in last year’s hearing, but when Rep. Clark continued to press her, she finally said “yes” – that federal money should not go to schools that do not follow federal civil rights laws. As Clark tweeted after the hearing, “It only took a year to get the answer.”

DeVos’s comment isn’t likely to make a difference. If she really cared about protecting students’ civil rights, she would strengthen our public schools rather than funneling public money into private schools that pick and choose which students to admit based on factors like sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and other factors.

DeVos’ hearing is another reminder that the Trump administration is continuing to undermine public education and religious freedom through vouchers. Trump and DeVos have continued to push for private school vouchers at the federal level. And in the states, we’re already fighting more than 70 bills that would create or expand state voucher programs in 2018. You can fight back against Trump and DeVos’ plan to adopt school vouchers that would allow discrimination. Tell your members of Congress and state legislators to oppose vouchers.

(Photo: Rep. Rosa DeLauro questions Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during the hearing. Credit: Screenshot from C-SPAN)