The Senate HELP Committee’s confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, went forward Tuesday evening despite objections from Democrats who are concerned that the Office of Government Ethics has not finished its review of DeVos’ vast wealth and financial investments.
The confirmation hearing left music education advocates with more questions than answers as very little was discussed with regard to the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
ESSA Implementation and Music Education
NAfME staff attended the hearing and offered questions to members of the Senate HELP Committee so music and arts advocates could gain a better understanding on DeVos’s views on the role the U.S. Department of Education can play in promoting access to music and arts education. Questions included how she plans to include the “well-rounded” education definition in her school-choice vision, views on teacher qualifications and expertise, and the importance of maintaining the Office of Civil Rights. Unfortunately, due to the limited breadth of questioning, none of these questions were answered, and music educators were left without much direction moving forward in a Trump Administration. However, NAfME remains committed to gaining an understanding of her views on a well-rounded education that includes music. This is vital to policy development and advocacy for music educators as we welcome a new president and congress.
If confirmed, DeVos and her team would play a major role in implementing ESSA, the bipartisan law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015. States are slated to begin submitting their ESSA plans in April, and it will be up to DeVos and her staff to sign off on them.
In her opening statement, DeVos said she would work with lawmakers to implement ESSA “the way that Congress intended—with local communities freed from burdensome regulations from Washington.”
However, Senate Republicans have stated their plans to repeal ESSA accountability rules through exercising the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Neither the policies nor the process of some of these important implementation issues were discussed.
Stand Out Topics from the Confirmation Hearing
DeVos has been an outspoken advocate of school choice proposals throughout her career as an education advocate. She has long lobbied for states to allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition. As secretary, she said, she would encourage states to create voucher programs but not try to impose them. She went on further to say, “I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation.” She said she would “absolutely” support a state that wanted to use federal education dollars to give students $2,100 scholarships for tuition in non-public schools.
The Secretary-Designate said she would continue to strongly support public schools. However, when pressed by Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) to commit to not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education, she responded that “not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them” and that she would work to find “common ground” to give parents “options.”
DeVos revealed very little about how she intends to implement the Higher Education Act, one of the laws that her agency oversees and that provides trillions of dollars in loans and grants to higher education students that help keep colleges and university doors open. When pressed on her stance on key regulations and the role of the government in student lending, she provided vague, noncommittal answers. DeVos acknowledged the problem of high volumes of student loan debt, but did not propose a solution.
In another exchange, DeVos appeared confused about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education”, and governs how states and public agencies provide various services to millions of students. DeVos at first suggested this is an area to be left to the states, but was later corrected by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) who stated that IDEA is a federal civil rights law and noted that federal law must be followed by all states.
On the issue of civil rights, DeVos denied earlier reports promising to “rein in” the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Under President Obama’s administration, the Office for Civil Rights has aggressively policed civil rights issues — such as cracking down on colleges that mishandle sexual assault cases, and urging schools to extend anti-bullying policies to cover LGBTQ students.
Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has said that the committee will not vote until the ethics office’s work is complete. DeVos promised to resolve any conflicts of interest the office identifies. The full Senate’s vote on whether to confirm DeVos as Secretary of Education is scheduled for Tuesday, January 24th.
NAfME will continue to work to get some clarity from Ms. DeVos on pressing policy issues that could have potential ramifications on music education going forward.
Tooshar Swain, Policy Advisor, Center for Advocacy, Policy, and Constituency Engagement, January 18, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)