Senate Appropriators Grill DeVos on 2020 Budget Proposal

By Megan Walter, NASFAA Policy & Federal Relations Staff

Following her Tuesday hearing before the House subcommittee, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos returned to Capitol Hill yesterday, this time defending her fiscal year 2020 budget proposal to the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees education funding.

Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) opened the hearing by drawing comparisons to the budget request from last year, and, in what seemed to be a response to the criticism the secretary received after her Tuesday hearing, explained that the law requires the president to reduce non-discretionary spending in the budget by 9 percent. Blunt followed that by assuring the room saying, “that being said, there are programs here that are unlikely to be ultimately eliminated.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the subcommittee, came out harshly against the secretary’s budget, saying that “a budget is a reflection of your values, and given that your budget fails to invest in our youngest learners—students in public schools—it fails to help students who are trying to better themselves in higher education, and fails the student loan borrowers who are saddled with debt. It speaks volumes of where your priorities are, and who you're fighting for as Secretary of Education.”

DeVos, in her prepared remarks for the subcommittee, stated that “there's been a 180 percent increase on spending for education in the past 40 years, and yet we’re still 24th in reading, 25th in science, and 40th in math when compared to the rest of the world.”

“Doing the same thing, and more of it, won't bring about new results. I propose a different approach. Freedom. This budget focuses on freedom for teachers, freedom for parents, and freedom for all students,” DeVos continued. “A great education should not be determined by where you live, nor by who you know. It shouldn't be determined by family income, and education should not be an old school, one-size-fits-all approach. Every student is unique, and everyone learns differently. Every child should be free to learn where and how it works for them.”

Blunt pressed DeVos for how she envisions giving people better information and more choices earlier to help with workforce training that's needed in many states. DeVos used the question to bring up the Education Freedom Act, which would create a federal tax credit that states could then take and use within their state to create programs that meet their own unique needs. It would allow, for example, for the expansion of apprenticeship programs in high school, or the expansion of dual enrollment programs, and could span the entire “cradle-to-career” pipeline.

DeVos briefly mentioned allowing short-term programs to be Pell Grant-eligible as another alternative, to which Blunt asked about ED’s plan to certify if a program should be eligible for this new proposal. DeVos had little information about how ED would go about that.

“I think these are important questions and we would look forward to working with Congress to put up the appropriate guardrails around such a program,” DeVos said, adding that “this is an important time for employers to be working closely with educators to help create those [short-term, Pell-eligible] programs.”

Borrower defense was a popular topic among the Democratic members of the subcommittee, with Murray asking DeVos very frankly how recently ED had approved any borrower defense to repayment claim. DeVos said that “ED is reviewing and approving claims for closed school discharge regularly,” and that “Corinthian College claims are being processed and dealt with, forthwith, and we are continuing to review the appropriate steps based on the judge’s request that the 2016 rule be implemented.” Murray noted that it has been over six months since that judgement came down, and said the lack of movement is hurtful to the students who were wronged by fraudulent institutions.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), took some of his time to speak to the issues with the Parent PLUS Loan program.

“Many parents want their kids to be able to get into great schools and want them to not carry debt, so they carry debt for them. Those PLUS loans will garnish their social security in the days ahead,” he said. “They are a ticking time bomb for those parents as they approach retirement and the days ahead.”

Lankford, then asked DeVos what kind of conversations ED is having about the Parent PLUS loan program. DeVos replied only that, “[ED] knows that this is a very real issue and one I hope that Congress deals with in a meaningful way.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), after explaining that New Hampshire has the second largest student loan debt burden in the country, asked DeVos how the elimination or decrease in funding of affordability programs, such as TRIO and Gear UP, is going to help address the student loan debt burden. DeVos used this time to pivot to the NextGen system, saying that “this is a concern that we share.”

“We want students that most need to be able to access higher education to do so, and I’m really enthused about some of the efforts we have through Federal Student Aid to bring the whole framework and experience around federal student aid into the 21st century and to give students many more tools in able to research and consider their path and opportunities,” DeVos said.

Shaheen replied, “I think what my constituents need is help with their debt burden, not more options.” 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), shifting the conversation from the budget proposal, used his time to bring up legislation he is planning to introduce shortly, which would “eliminate interest on the Direct Federal Loan and would replace it with a one-time fee that would not accrue interest.”

“It would be paid over the life of the loan and would account for the costs of servicing the loans. Borrowers would also be put into a repayment plan that would reflect their income,” he said, before asking DeVos what ED’s position might be on such legislation. She replied that ED shares “a lot of your concerns and goals and look forward to reviewing your proposal.”

Blunt and Murray closed the hearing by offering their last remarks, with Blunt pushing the importance of ED needing to get its team fully staffed, as the agency has not been responding to directives from Congress or requests for information in an acceptable time frame.

Murray reiterated her disapproval of the budget, saying, “I am disappointed in this budget that's come before us, and we want to work to make sure that our schools and students across the country are getting the support they need in this critically important time, and I just do not agree with the direction of this budget.”


Publication Date: 3/29/2019

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