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DeVos, Democrats spar over block grants, charter schools

Trump's education budget proposal has garnered universal disapproval from Democrats

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos touts the Trump administration's schools proposals Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos touts the Trump administration's schools proposals Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

​​​Democrats on a House appropriations panel took aim Thursday at the Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 Education Department budget plan, warning Secretary Betsy DeVos that many of its proposals won’t become law.

The Feb. 10 budget proposal, which would request $66.6 billion — a 7.8 percent cut from fiscal 2020 appropriated levels — garnered universal disapproval from Democrats and some pushback from a key Republican on the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

“You are seeking to privatize public education,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “With all sincerity, this is not going to happen.”

Many questions focused on DeVos’ proposal to combine 29 elementary and secondary education programs into a single $19.4 billion state block grant program. Members on both sides of the aisle expressed concern that some programs, such as the TRIO program and the Charter Schools Program, would be jeopardized.

“While I tend to support block grants to states…I do have some concerns with consolidating some programs such as the Charter School Program,” said ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla. “There’s a risk here that some states are welcoming to charter schools, others frankly are not.”

Cole also worried the block grant program would weaken the TRIO program, which funds outreach and student service programs designed for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Republicans were largely supportive of the rest of the budget proposal, particularly the plan to increase funding for career and technical education programs to nearly $900 million and allocate $5 billion annually for “Education Freedom Scholarships.” Those are funds directed toward state-designed scholarship programs that could support career and technical education, special education or private school tuition.

DeVos repeatedly defended the block grant proposal, arguing it would give state and local governments flexibility to direct resources to the programs that need it most.

“The proposal is to put all of those proposals together in one block grant that would then allow those at the local levels — those closest to the kids — to target the resources and meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable in that school district,” she said.

[Democrats resist plan for new student aid agency]

The budget request also includes cuts, opposed by Democrats, to federal higher education student programs, but those proposals got little attention at the hearing. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., expressed concern that the elimination of the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program would adversely affect teacher shortages in her state.

The atmosphere at the hearing grew testy at times, with heated exchanges between Democrats and DeVos.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., condemned DeVos for her department’s delayed release of a report on racial differences between the rates of suspension in preschools, while Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., pushed DeVos to commit to discrimination standards for the Education Freedom Scholarship Program.

DeVos demurred, citing the program’s role as a state, not a federal, program. Clark responded that DeVos should resign.

Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., asked DeVos what the department planned to do in response to the coronavirus outbreak. DeVos said the department had convened a task force to coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Congress has rejected similar Education Department proposed cuts from Trump the last three years, instead increasing the department’s fiscal 2020 funding by $10.2 billion more than in the budget request.

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