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DeVos faces tough questions about school voucher program at Senate hearing

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year 2018 budget. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year 2018 budget. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

What exactly would a federal school voucher program look like, and would it fund schools that discriminate against students based on their gender, religion, race or sexual orientation?

That question was a major flashpoint – once again – on Tuesday as senators in an appropriations subcommittee questioned U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked DeVos if any voucher program would follow anti-discrimination laws.

DeVos repeated, at least six times over the course of the hearing, that any school accepting federal money would have to follow federal law.

But some senators were dissatisfied with this answer.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., had a heated back-and-forth with DeVos over the question. “Where law is unsettled, this department will not be issuing decrees,” DeVos said. When she gave the answer she kept repeating again, Merkley said he wanted the public to know that DeVos refuses to affirm that she would prevent discrimination. DeVos said that was not true: “I don’t support discrimination.”

Exactly how nondiscrimination law would apply to which programs is unclear, though. Some parts of the law are murky. Discrimination by race, color or national origin is not allowed in any private school under Title IX. But there is no federal law explicitly protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And protections for students with disabilities haven’t been fully defined by laws or the courts.

DeVos insisted several times that there is no federal voucher program. But here’s what we know about what could be in the works:

President Donald Trump and DeVos have hinted that they would favor a tax-credit program that would give businesses that donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations tax breaks – with the scholarships produced allowing for students to attend private or parochial schools.

It would be up to Congress to create such a tax-credit program. Such a program would not necessarily be subject to nondiscrimination laws because the dollars would flow from companies to nonprofits to schools.

Trump’s budget proposed using $250 million to encourage states to boost “private school choice.”

It was unclear which specific laws the senators who pushed back on DeVos’ refrain were asking about. The federal government, however, can attach conditions to the money it gives out in programs such as the proposed innovation fund, aimed at expanding and researching vouchers. Perhaps they were asking DeVos to exceed federal law by only giving money to schools that don’t bar LGBTQ students from attending and states that don’t allow them to do so.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, pressed DeVos on cuts to a teacher support fund, saying 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs.

“There’s not been evidence of great outcomes or effectiveness from this program,” DeVos said.

Schatz said that DeVos’ insistence that states want flexibility hides the truth that her budget would cut $9.2 billion. “It is sort of a rhetorical device to say they will be basking in new flexibility,” Schatz said. “Anyone who’s run a government . doesn’t want flexibility, they want resources.”

Will DeVos turn away states that propose “meaningless” plans for improving low-performing schools under federal law, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., asked? One example he cited: painting the walls. DeVos said she could not answer, only that states’ plans would be accepted as long as they follow the Every Student Succeeds Act.

One senator asked DeVos if she was aware that people don’t like her because of her support for school vouchers.

She answered: “I’m peripherally aware of that, yes.”


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