Betsy DeVos’s Cynical Defense of the Trump Education Budget Cuts

Betsy DeVos
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Early in Betsy DeVos’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday we got to see how the Education Secretary can magically turn less money into “more latitude.”

In her opening remarks to a House Appropriations subcommittee, DeVos, argued that the budget — which proposes cutting Department of Education programs by more than $10 billion — represents a rethinking of the role of the federal government in education, giving states and communities greater control and freedom in how they serve students and families. DeVos’s “control and freedom” narrative includes a proposed $250 million for school vouchers, which diverts money to private and religious schools. 

Early in the testimony, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) asked DeVos why she wants to slash funding for teachers’ professional development: “They have either hit all the benchmarks, or they are doing so poorly there’s no need to invest in them.” Which category, DeLauro asked, do these teachers fall into?

DeVos demurred, saying the program funding was not substantial enough to make a real impact, and that states and local agencies are better suited for these programs “as they have great latitude with how to designate other funding sources.” You see, by cutting funding, it’s freeing for the states!

DeLauro summed up the situation quite plainly: “You can’t do more with less. You do less with less.”

The Washington Post has outlined the full list of proposed education cuts, including initiatives for after-school programs, special education, and college financial aid and work-study programs:

The documents obtained by the Post — dated May 23, the day the president’s budget is expected to be released — outline the rest of the cuts, including a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

If we are to take DeVos at her word — that these cuts are about empowering local control of schools, versus undermining them — the department could find ways to shift these federal funds straight to the states and local agencies that need them. Instead the budget, and DeVos’s weak defense of it, is the equivalent of firing public school teachers and telling them to look on the bright side: at least they’ll get more vacation time.

As it turns out, DeVos’s dream of total “latitude” for states also means she’s not going to protect students and families from discrimination. Witness this exchange between DeVos and Rep. Katherine Clark, who asked whether DeVos would allow religious schools receiving federal voucher money to discriminate against LGBTQ families and students:

DeVos refused to answer the question. Said Clark: “I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.” In this absurd version of real life, we will eventually reach the point where true freedom means children fending for themselves.

Further reading: