Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ first hearing before the House Education Committee in over a year was a mess.
On Tuesday, she answered questions from members of Congress at a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on Tuesday about for-profit colleges, students with disabilities, student discipline, LGBTQ rights, and student loans.
Here are 5 main takeaways from the hearing.
1. DeVos called a CBO estimate an opinion.
The hearing started off with a testy exchange between Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Secretary DeVos.
Scott mentioned a $15 billion cut to student aid that would go into effect if Republicans pass their higher education reform bill.
Secretary DeVos said, “I’ve heard that opined, I’m not sure I agree with that.”
Scott asked her if she had another number, but DeVos simply repeated her answer. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would ensure students enrolling in college over the next decade would receive $15 billion less in mandatory federal spending on student aid. That number wasn’t just his opinion, as other members of Congress pointed out; it was an analysis from a federal agency.
2. She wouldn’t explicitly say there’s a problem with for-profit colleges.
Many of the Democrats at the hearing asked DeVos about oversight of for-profit colleges and Obama-era regulations the department rolled back under DeVos’ leadership.
Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) asked DeVos if she had the percentage of borrower defense claims that related to for-profit colleges defrauding students compared to nonprofit colleges. DeVos said “the exact percentage of for-profit versus not for profit schools, I don’t know the breakdown of that.”
“As you know, they were primarily from two large institutions, both Corinthian and ITT and a significant percentage were from students from those institutions,” DeVos said, without mentioning that these are both for-profit institutions.
When Davis highlighted that a disproportionate number of the claims have to do with for-profit colleges defrauding students, DeVos ignored the connection and said, “Well fraud in any case is not to be tolerated and we have to be very clear about that.”
She added, “We need to make sure students go into higher education with their eyes wide open about what they’re buying.”
3. She admitted that a rule she changed would have helped victims of for-profit colleges.
Mark Takano (D-CA) grilled DeVos about the department’s weakening of the borrower defense rule and how it affects veterans, who are often targeted by for-profit colleges. For-profit colleges are subject to the 90-10 rule that means for-profits can’t receive more than 90 percent of revenue from student aid from the department. However, these institutions can receive funds from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Office without interfering with the rule.
In December, the department changed how it decides how much students get for debt relief. The new changes would provide tiers of relief to compensate students, based on current earnings of peers from a passing gainful employment (GE) program. But using that measure wouldn’t make sense for a number of reasons, experts say, and ultimately shortchanges students.
“Someone working full time at the federal minimum wage earning only $15,000 they could possibly receive partial relief,” Takano said. “I find this weakening to be in direct contradiction with the passage of G.I. bill which restored full G.I. benefits to defrauded students. Do you think a rule that only gives minimum wage workers only half of the money they were defrauded is doing a really good job of protecting students?”
“I think we have a responsibility and are taking the responsibility seriously to ensure students who have been defrauded are recognized and relieved accordingly,” she said.
“You are aware that the rule you originally revised would have given full relief?” he asked.
“I am aware of that,” DeVos answered.
4. She said courts “are mixed” on the issue of trans students’ rights.
DeVos was also asked about the enforcement of protections for students in the LGBTQ community who are discriminated against at school.
Jared Polis (D-CO) mentioned the decisions in Whitacker v. Kinosha, where a federal court decided in 2016 that the school must let a transgender boy use the school’s boys restroom, and Glenn v. Brumby, where the 11th circuit court held in 2011 that it was a violation of the equal protection clause’s prohibition of sex-based discrimination to fire someone because of his or her gender non-conformity. In light of those rulings, Polis asked, “What are your plans to address LGBTQ harassment and discrimination?”
DeVos answered, “I am committed, we are committed to protecting the civil rights as stated by the civil rights law and have continued to do so.”
When pressed on the issue, DeVos said, “I think part of what you’ve referred to, with regards to transgender students, courts have been mixed on that and this body has not opined or updated or addressed that. Until the Supreme Court opines or this body takes action, I will not make up law from the Department of Education.”
Last year, the Trump administration rescinded guidance that protected transgender students from discrimination and allowed them to use the gender appropriate bathroom and locker room. This year, the department has made it clear that it won’t investigate complaints related to trans students’ lack of access to facilities due to gender discrimination. Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the department told HuffPost, which broke the story, that Title IX “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, not gender identity.”
5. She wouldn’t take racial disparities in student discipline seriously.
Representatives also asked DeVos about Obama-era guidance that she is considering rolling back, such as guidance on student discipline that was intended to help reduce racial and other disparities in suspensions, and guidance that was supposed to be implemented in the 2018-2019 school year that focused on students with disabilities.
Rep. Jason Lewis (R-MN) said he considered the 2014 guidance that discouraged officers from disciplining students and pushed for more positive and less punitive responses to student behavior to be “lowering expectations” or “turning a blind eye to misbehaviors” and that the approach “is not doing kids any favors.”
Although DeVos said racial disparities in discipline for the same infraction are “not tolerable,” she also said the department is looking closely at the issue.
“We need to ensure that students are treated justly and fairly. We know the data also shows disparities but the broader issue is the question of what is ultimately right for each and every individual student in protecting their rights,” DeVos answered.
The department also sought to delay a rule that would have created a standard methodology for states to determine when disproportionate numbers of students of a particular race or ethnicity were put in special education classes, among other measures. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) said that it was her understanding that more than 85 percent of public comments on whether the department should delay the rule were opposed.
When Blunt Rochester asked DeVos whether she would commit to keeping the current timeline for the rule, she said, “I have not reached that conclusion yet, It’s still under consideration.”
6. She said it’s up to schools whether to call ICE on undocumented students.
When asked by Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) if school principals and teachers should report undocumented families to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DeVos said individual schools should make those decisions. There have been reports of parents being picked up by ICE near schools.
“I would just say we are a nation of laws and we are a compassionate people,” DeVos said. “I think it’s important that we follow the laws of the land and I encourage this body to do its job and address where there are deficiencies in the law.”
He continued to press DeVos and asked whether school staff have a responsibility to report undocumented children. DeVos answered, “That’s a school decision. It’s a local community decision.”
DeVos has not attended congressional hearings with the same frequency of her predecessors, according to Education Week. Obama administration education secretary Arne Duncan appeared before Congress nine times in his first 15 months. John King, who became secretary after Duncan, answered questions from members of Congress six times in 11 months. Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush’s second education secretary, came to the Hill nine times in her first 15 months.