You and I witnessed history last week, and not the good kind.
At a House subcommittee hearing In Washington, DC, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was called to defend to Congress the Trump administration’s education budget which cuts education options for poor kids and increases options for parents to leave public schools.
DeVos called this a matter of making “tough choices” and “putting an emphasis on the programs that are proven to help students.” But tough questioning from Democratic Representatives revealed the real priority of this administration isn’t pragmatic; it’s ideological – and it’s a particularly ugly ideology our federal government has historically been focused on dismantling.
More specifically, Trump’s education budget cuts $9.2 billion (13.5 percent) of federal outlays to public schools, and eliminates or phases-out twenty-two programs.
Both Republicans and Democrats expressed concerns with cuts in federal support for afterschool programs, Special Olympics, arts education, gifted and talented students, teacher training, class size reduction, career and technical education, and programs targeted at helping disadvantaged students and veterans successfully complete high school and enter higher education.
But the sharpest exchanges with the Secretary focused on the budget’s significant funding increases for alternatives to public schools, namely, charter schools and school vouchers that allow parents to withdraw from the public education system and send their children to privately-operated schools at taxpayer expense.
Trump’s budget proposes to increase direct federal aid to charter schools by $500 million, devote $370 million to research and promote vouchers, and shift $1 billion in Title I funds to states and districts that allow families to pull their children out of public schools, taking public money with them, and choose alternatives such as private schools.
Title I, the federal government’s largest financial obligation to public schools, was created to provide more funding to schools serving predominantly low-income and minority populations of students. DeVos falsely claimed, in her testimony, that schools serving low income kids already receive more funding than schools attended by wealthy students, when actually that’s often not the case. Now, her department wants to make that inequity even worse.
Democratic Representatives were especially concerned, not only with the repurposing of Title I money to create school choice options, including vouchers, but also about the kind of schools the money would be permitted to go to.
An especially revealing line of questioning came from Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts (watch it here), who brought up an example of a private school in Indiana that gets $665,000 from the state’s school choice program – even though the school expressly denies admittance to any student in a family where there is “homosexual or bisexual activity” or family members who practice “alternate gender identity.” Clark bluntly asked DeVos if this is the kind of school that would be allowed to receive federal funds under her new school choice ventures. DeVos refused to directly answer the question.
When Clark pressed harder, asking the secretary if under her watch federal dollars would go to schools denying admittance to African American students, DeVos, again, dodged the question.
DeVos maintained her bottom line is that “parents are equipped to make the best choices.” But in the case Clark brought up, it was the school making the choice, not parents.
DeVos condemned federal restrictions on funding institutions that discriminate on the basis of race, income, ability, or gender identity as a “top down, one-size-fits-all approach.” But people who’ve fought for the right to enter the schoolhouse door would call those federal laws “justice.”
Following up Clark’s questioning, Representative Barbara Lee of California reminded DeVos that if it was “up to the parents and local communities,” Lee, who is black, wouldn’t have been able to attend public schools as a child. “When you say,” Lee continued, “even when young people are being discriminated against … to take the federal government’s responsibility out of that, it is just appalling and sad.”
DeVos said she was “not in any way suggesting that students should not be protected” and stated her department’s office of civil rights would “investigate any complaints … surrounding allegations or issues of discrimination.” But, Lee reminded her, “You’re cutting $1.7 million from the office of civil rights.”
DeVos said she wants “something different” and claims her department’s budget prioritizes “what’s working.” But what she’s willing to support, with your and my tax money, is really the same old thing: Discrimination and inequity that have held back America’s public education system historically.
As education historian Diane Ravitch has explained in her writings, the federal government’s role in education was solidified with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 which obligated Congress and the administration to protect the civil rights of students and provide more resources to public schools serving low-income children, students who are non-white or don’t speak English well, and students with disabilities.
What Trump and DeVos are proposing in this budget is not only to take some of those resources away from these students, but then turn around and give more money to schools that would potentially discriminate against them.
Experienced observers inside the Beltway have pronounced this budget “dead on arrival” in Congress, but what is very much alive in this federal administration is the reanimated body of Jim Crow parading under a banner of “school choice.”