Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has, in very short order, come to exemplify the privileged incompetence and ignorance of President Donald Trump’s administration.
At her confirmation hearing, DeVos did not know that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) extends federal protections to children with disabilities, testifying that such protections are “a matter that is best left to the states.”
DeVos also displayed her ignorance by referring to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as “pioneers for school choice,” which later spurred massive student resistance to her commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a Florida HBCU.
On Wednesday, DeVos turned in another stellar performance at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee hearing on the effects of the proposed Department of Education budget.
The IDEA came up once again, as DeVos made it clear that disabled students would not enjoy due process rights under her proposed voucher program, a concern that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) raised during the debate over DeVos’s confirmation.
Even more disturbing, though, was DeVos’s extended exchange with Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) on whether DeVos would protect students in voucher programs from discrimination. Rep. Clark asked DeVos if she would allow federal funds to go to a school that discriminates against LGBT students, based on an actual school in Indiana, and after several evasions, Clark lost patience with DeVos and began to grill her:
CLARK: Is there any situation — would you say, to Indiana, that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars? Or would you say the state has the flexibility in this situation?
CLARK: Yes or no.
DEVOS: I believe states continue to have flexibility in putting together programs. Just as they have…
CLARK: So if I understand your testimony, I want to make sure I get this right, there is no situation of discrimination or exclusion that, if a state approved it for its voucher program, that you would step in and say that’s not how we’re going to use our federal dollars, there is no situation, if the state approved it — that you would put the state flexibility over our students. Is that your testimony?
DEVOS: I think a hypothetical in this case is not…
CLARK: It’s not a hypothetical. This is a real school applying for, that receives, federal dollars.
CHAIRMAN COLE: Gentlelady’s time is expired, but I am going to allow the secretary to answer.
DEVOS: I go back to, the bottom line is, we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different, we have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, and that is the focus, and states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions in a framework on behalf of their…
CLARK: I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.
Ordinarily, parents could take a measure of comfort in the protection of the courts, but like DeVos, freshly minted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has some funny ideas about protecting students under federal law.
Along with President Donald Trump’s own rescission of protections for transgender students, this administration has made plain its hostility to vulnerable children. In this area, the Trump administration is remarkably consistent.