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Photo Credit: Getty Images

February 26, 2017

Talking Points

From pre-K to higher ed, @BetsyDeVosED promised senators she’d look into a range of issues

Up next: the issues @BetsyDeVosED pledged to look into during her confirmation hearing

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been in office not quite three weeks, so far spending most of her public time making speeches and visiting schools.  

Her first major act was rescinding Obama administration guidance mandating that transgender students have access to locker rooms and bathrooms matching their gender identity — according to media reports, against her own wishes.

(The 74: Obama-Era Protections for Transgender Students to Be Revoked, Gavin Grimm Supreme Court Case at Risk)

But there’s plenty else on her docket, primarily the department’s new budget, currently about $68 billion. President Trump has said he’ll seek cuts in spending, and DeVos in a recent interview said there are areas of the Education Department she thinks may be superfluous — maybe even her own.

“It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I’m not sure that — I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that,” she told Axios on February 17.

The Trump administration will release its 2018 budget proposal in mid-March, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, so DeVos would need to have her department’s fiscal plan to the president before that.

Though eclipsed by her flubs on special education, testing, and most particularly grizzly bears, DeVos during her January 17 confirmation hearing made multiple pledges to senators to look further into particular issues of concern.

In many ways, the “I’ll look into it” response is an easy way to avoid confrontation on issues where she didn’t agree with the senator asking the question — as when she told Sen. Bernie Sanders she’d look into ways to make child care and college tuition more affordable, without agreeing to his premise that they should be free.

“I think we also have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that is truly free — somebody is going to pay for it,” DeVos said.

But remember: the majority of senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee didn’t vote for DeVos in the end, so expect many of them to hold her to account for her hearing pledges.

Here’s what’s on that list:

Special education funding

Sen. Susan Collins, one of two Republicans who voted against DeVos’s confirmation, asked whether she would look into increasing federal funding for special education. The federal government is supposed to provide 40 percent of the additional cost of educating children with disabilities, but the annual funding, currently around $12 billion, has never come close to that mark.

The issue has long had wide, bipartisan backing in Congress. IDEA funding has increased in recent years even as other areas have been cut, but the Department of Education and the appropriations committees haven’t made the kind of large-scale increases necessary to realize the 40 percent share in recent lean-budget times.

Raising the funding “is an action that would help every single school district in this country,” Collins said.

DeVos committed to looking into it and said it might be an area for a different approach. Many states have tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts, school choice reforms DeVos has championed, for students with disabilities.

“Maybe the money should follow individual students instead of going to the states,” she said.  

Rules governing for-profit colleges

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among the chamber’s most outspoken members on higher education and student loan issues, asked DeVos if she would commit to enforce what’s called the “gainful employment” rule. That regulation, primarily aimed at for-profit colleges but also applicable to non-degree-granting programs at nonprofit institutions, requires schools to show their graduates aren’t paying too much in student debt as compared to their earnings.

Those whose graduates pay more than 8 percent of their income in student loans could be ineligible for financial aid, a move that would effectively bankrupt a college. A theater certificate program at Harvard University was suspended last month after it breached the limit.

DeVos said she would “certainly review that rule” to “see that it is actually achieving what the intentions are.”

That’s in keeping with general Republican thinking — the GOP has long argued that the rule is an inappropriate federal intervention in a sector that serves more veterans, adult learners, and other non-traditional students than the nonprofit sector. The Obama administration and most Democrats, meanwhile, have said it’s vital to clamp down on bad actors that prey on students and leave them with worthless degrees.

“Swindlers and crooks are out there doing backflips when they hear an answer like this,” Warren said.

ESSA accountability regulations

Though it was overshadowed by the guns-in-schools exchange, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut also asked DeVos whether she would stick with the Obama administration’s proposal for judging and improving failing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“As would be tradition with the change of administration, I will look forward to reviewing that, and again, I will restate my orientation to pro-accountability and pro-responsibility to parents and taxpayers,” she said.

There’s already been action on this front — the regulations were paused as part of a broader Trump administration effort to delay all pending regulations. Congress is in the midst of blocking the rules via the Congressional Review Act. DeVos wrote to state education secretaries in the interim, assuring them that she’d release a modified state plan template by mid-March and stick with the Obama administration’s April and September deadlines for submitting plans.

The letter did not say whether she favored the Obama administration’s approach toward evaluating and intervening in failing schools, but it indicated that regulations on her watch would provide as much flexibility to states as possible.

Preschool funding

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia, asked DeVos about his goal of “requiring 4-year-old pre-kindergarten for every student in the country” and whether she agreed that it would take private and public investment to meet that goal.

Isakson co-sponsored an amendment to ESSA that created a new competitive grant program for states to improve coordination, quality, and access to early childhood programs.

Nearly all of the federal early learning initiatives, including Head Start and the ESSA program, called preschool development grants, are run through the Department of Health and Human Services. DeVos said she’d work with other agencies in implementing preschool programs and look at successful state programs like Georgia’s and Florida’s “to see if there are ways to more effectively use those monies to help students be ready for kindergarten.”

College student support programs

Collins also asked for DeVos’s thoughts on how the government can support programs that help at-risk college students complete their degrees, particularly those from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to attend.

The federal government’s major investments in the area now are the TRIO programs, a group of eight initiatives funded at about $900 million annually, aimed at helping those students, starting in middle school and continuing through their undergraduate careers. Think tanks and researchers have proposed overhauling them, arguing that the large expenditures haven’t produced noticeable results. 

“I know the TRIO program helps to mentor and prepare students that might not otherwise have an opportunity,” DeVos said. “That is a very important and valid one to look at, or perhaps, is there another and more effective way to advance that or replicate that? Or use that in a new way to help increase the participation of students that may not otherwise pursue higher education and complete it?”

Title IX, campus sexual assault and department guidance

The education department under the Obama administration focused on improving the way colleges handle allegations of campus sexual assault. In 2011, the department released a “Dear Colleague” letter that urged colleges to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, essentially 51 percent, to decide school disciplinary cases, rather than the higher “clear and convincing” evidence standard that had been used previously.

Republicans have argued that the guidance essentially amounted to a mandate on colleges that Congress never intended. Some advocates have said that the lower evidentiary standard makes it too easy to expel those found guilty of assaults.

Sen. Bob Casey, long an advocate for more rigorous investigation by colleges of sex assault allegations, asked whether DeVos would uphold the guidance.

The now-secretary said it would be “premature” for her to commit one way or the other.

“I know that there is a lot of conflicting ideas and opinions around that guidance, and if confirmed would look forward to working with you and your colleagues and understand the range of opinions,” DeVos said.

Later, Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat, pressed DeVos on whether she would rein in the Office for Civil Rights, the agency charged with investigating and enforcing the Title IX rules barring sex discrimination in schools.

“I will be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled, and with great sensitivity to those who are victims, and also considering perpetrators as well,” DeVos said.

Dyslexia

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, whose daughter has dyslexia and who started a charter school focused on children with the learning disability, asked DeVos several questions about it.

DeVos said she would work with Cassidy and others to find ways to promote better awareness and understanding of dyslexia and ensure children have the resources they need.

She wouldn’t, though, commit to developing federal policies to ensure universal early screening for dyslexia, saying — as she did many times that night — it may be better handled by states.

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provided funding to The 74 from 2014 to 2016. Campbell Brown serves on the boards of both The 74 and the American Federation for Children, which was formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos. Brown played no part in the reporting or editing of this article.