WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced tough questions from House Democrats on Tuesday on gun control, racial bias and civil rights as she sought to defend funding cuts for her agency.
DeVos’ testimony in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee got so tense at certain moments that the chairman made a point of thanking DeVos for her poise when he concluded the meeting.
DeVos, already reeling after a series of rocky, high-profile interviews, unveiled some details of a federal commission on school safety that she will be chairing. The commission, formed after the Florida high school shooting in which 17 people were killed, will comprise herself as well as the heads of the Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Justice departments.
DeVos said the commission will begin work within the next few weeks. A spokeswoman for DeVos later added that the panel will also involve students, teachers, law enforcement and mental health professionals as experts.
DeVos said the commission will, among other things, consider whether to ban gun sales to people under 21. President Donald Trump initially spoke in favor of such a proposal, but backtracked on it after meeting with representatives of the National Rifle Association. DeVos would not tell the subcommittee whether she personally supports the idea or not.
DeVos also defended states’ and communities’ rights to decide whether to arm teachers.
“The question of school personnel being armed is very much one for local communities and states to grapple with,” she said.
DeVos added, “If there are going to be guns in schools, they need to be in the hands of the right people, those who are going to protect students and ensure their safety.”
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., applauded DeVos for trying to upend the education establishment and push for alternatives to neighborhood public schools. He lamented that American students were scoring lower than many of their foreign peers on international assessments.
“My gosh, the federal intrusion in education just hasn’t worked and it’s time to drain the education swamp,” Harris said.
Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate committee overseeing education, was skeptical about the school safety commission. “I am not very optimistic that that will accomplish anything,” she told The Associated Press.
DeVos also faced sharp criticism from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who complained that minority students were being disciplined much more frequently than their white peers for similar infractions. The Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that instructed schools to pay attention to the problem and make sure they weren’t discriminating against minority students.
“Your head is in the sand about racial bias and racial discrimination,” Lee said. “Madame Secretary, you just don’t care much about the rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.”
DeVos is now reviewing that guidance, and civils rights group fear she intends to rescind it. She would not talk about her plans at the hearing.
But DeVos said she was proud of the work of her agency’s civil rights office and said it was working to protect all students.
“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination and we will continue to uphold that,” she said.
Harris came to DeVos’ defense, saying the Washington Opportunity Scholarship, the nation’s only federally-funded private school voucher program, was helping raise graduation rates for minority students. He added that he has received letters from one of his constituents who is complaining that schools have become unsafe because teachers are afraid to discipline students out of fear of sanctions from the federal government.
“I’ve been called racist. I guess that’s the favorite thing to do to anyone you disagree with and it’s shameful, to be honest with you,” Harris said.
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., launched into a tense back-and-forth with DeVos on whether she would require private schools that receive federal funding to follow federal civil rights laws that prohibit sexual, racial and religious discrimination.
DeVos has been pushing to increase public funding of alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools — such as charter school or private school programs. Critics say private schools get to choose which students to admit and may discriminate against minorities.
“Will you guarantee as secretary of education that that money is included with non-discrimination policies for those private schools?” Clark asked.
“Federal law must be followed when federal money is involved,” DeVos said.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos kept repeating her answer.
“Is there some problem? Yes or no?”
“Yes,” DeVos finally said.