WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday defended deep cuts to programs meant to help students and others, including eliminating $18 million to support Special Olympics, while urging Congress to spend millions more on charter schools.
“We are not doing our children any favors when we borrow from their future in order to invest in systems and policies that are not yielding better results,” DeVos said in prepared testimony before a House subcommittee considering the Department of Education’s budget request for the next fiscal year.
It was the first time that DeVos, a wealthy former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and school choice advocate, had been called before a Democratic-led panel in the U.S. House to explain President Donald Trump’s spending priorities.
While proposing to add $60 million more to charter school funding and create a tax credit for individual and companies that donate to scholarships for private schools, DeVos’ budget proposal would still cut more than $7 billion from the Education Department, about 10 percent of its current budget. President Trump proposed a $4.7 trillion overall budget this month with an annual deficit expected to run about $1 trillion.
It calls for eliminating billions in grants to improve student achievement by reducing class sizes and funding professional development for teachers as well as cutting funds dedicated to increasing the use of technology in schools and improving school conditions. In many cases, DeVos said the purpose of the grants has been found to be redundant or ineffective.
In the case of the $17.6 million cut to help fund the Special Olympics, a program designed to help children and adults with disabilities, DeVos suggested it is better supported by philanthropy and added, “We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget.”
“Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut?” asked U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, while also pointing out a recent report by a nonprofit group that concluded the U.S. government has spent as much as $1 billion on charter schools that never opened or they closed because of mismanagement or other reasons.
DeVos has been a longtime supporter of charter schools — independently run, publicly funded schools that typically aren’t as closely regulated as traditional schools — and school choice for public school students, arguing that parents should be able to put their children into the schools of their choice and that funding should follow them.
Many public school supporters have argued that government support of charter schools and private schools can undermine traditional schools, which educate most students.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is chairwoman of the subcommittee that held the hearing, called the budget proposal “cruel and reckless,” saying it “will hurt the middle class and low-income families that most need our help.”
“How can you support this budget? I mean that genuinely,” she said. “As secretary of the Department of Education, how can you support, even boast, about taking 10 percent … away from our teachers and students?”
It’s unlikely that any of the major reductions, or any major proposals to boost school choice, are headed towards passage, however. Even with the Republican in the majority in the U.S. House the last two years, most of DeVos’ strongest proposals for cuts or spending were turned back. Now with Democrats in the majority, they are far less likely to gain traction.
Follow the Detroit Free Press’ Todd Spangler on Twitter @tsspangler.