Last week, Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before both the House and Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittees to defend the Department of Education’s (ED) funding proposals in the FY 2020 President’s Budget. Both hearings were somewhat contentious, with Democrats pushing DeVos on many of the unpopular cuts to education programs made in the budget and Republicans praising the majority of the proposal. Overall, some policies and highlights emerged from both hearings:
- Special Olympics Funding: One topic that emerged early in the House hearing and continued to be a story through the Senate hearing two days later was the elimination of federal funds in the President’s Budget for the Special Olympics. The budget proposed eliminating $18 million, the entire federal investment in the program, which quickly drew the ire of Democrats on both committees. DeVos noted several times that difficult choices were made when making the budget and that eliminating funding for Special Olympics was one of the most difficult. The issue remained a lightning rod following the hearings, even to the point where President Trump announced his opposition to the elimination of these funds hours after the Senate hearing.
- Mental Health Supports/School Safety:Overall, the President’s Budget would eliminate 29 programs administered by ED, including Title IV—or Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. One of the many uses of Title IV is to promote safe and healthy schools, and many districts have been using these funds to implement mental health supports for students. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) both asked DeVos for the reasoning behind eliminating the $1.1 billion program and if direct data factored into that decision. DeVos stated that ED felt the program was spread too thin to be effective, but this response was quickly countered by Democrats with firsthand accounts from districts using the funds to provide mental health supports for students.
- Vouchers/School Choice:One area where the President’s Budget calls for an increase is for school voucher proposals. The budget includes $50 billion over 10 years to support a new tax credit proposal for individual or corporate donations to state-authorized scholarship-granting organizations that can be used for private school tuition. Many Republicans supported this measure by DeVos, stating that choice is necessary for parents and their children. Democrats were quick to condemn the proposal and DeVos’ continued lack of support for public education. You can read about NASSP’s opposition to the proposal here.
- Higher Education:Several topics related to higher education were discussed in the hearings, but very few answers were found. Ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) focused her time on attempting to get information related to borrower forgiveness for individuals who were defrauded by unfair lending practices or by institutions who failed to meet federal standards. DeVos was unable to answer how many students have received forgiveness or repayment, and stated that ED was still working on processing all the requests. Another important talking point around higher education was related to DeVos’ recently proposed Title IX rules. Murray and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) both questioned DeVos’ new rules and whether they would lead to less supports for assault victims. DeVos believes that the current iteration of the rules places unnecessary burdens on higher education institutions and that these rules were put in place to protect the accused from unwarranted accusations while still supporting the accuser.
- Lack of Responsiveness From ED:While both hearings were largely partisan, there was one issue that both parties could agree on. Murray and Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) stated that ED has not responded to requests and inquiries in a timely enough manner. Blunt went further, pointing out that ED is required to report to Congress and should not view Congress as “a nuisance, but absolutely essential.” DeVos argued that ED was responding to requests as quickly as possible and pointed to 110 request it has responded to from Murray’s office alone. However, both parties were not pleased with this response and reinforced that ED must improve on the timelines for requests moving forward.
Once again, it is important to note that the President’s Budget is merely a request to Congress and a laying out of the administration’s priorities. Congress has continually rebuked President Trump’s budgets in the past. After viewing both hearings, it seems very likely that Congress will plan on doing so once again for FY 2020. The next step in the appropriations process will see both the House and Senate appropriations committees working to develop their own budget numbers and advance them before their respective chambers.