DeVos Déjà Vu: Battles on Vouchers, ESSA, Title IX Confront Ed Dept. Picks in Confirmation Hearing
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been at the center of several controversial issues since her contentious confirmation, including private school choice, the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Title IX, and guns. These issues took center stage once again as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee considered the nominations of retired Brig. Gen. Mitchell Zais for deputy secretary and James Blew for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development.
While Republicans on the committee, with the exception of Chairman Lamar Alexander, did not ask any questions to Zais or Blew, Democrats focused on the topic of vouchers, a subject DeVos has supported even before becoming secretary. Zais, a former Army officer and president of Newberry College in South Carolina, who also served as the state superintendent, received more questions compared to Blew. He stated that his views on choice are aligned with those of the Trump administration, emphasizing that supporting students should always take precedence over systems. Zais believes that education should not be "one size fits all" and that low-income families should have the same opportunity as high-income families to choose a nurturing environment that best suits their child.
Blew, who has led various education reform groups including Student Success California, expressed his support for the limited yet significant role the federal government plays in education, particularly in enforcing civil rights laws and providing assistance to low-income students and children with disabilities.
During the hearing, Democrats on the committee engaged in discussions with Zais and Blew regarding the effectiveness of voucher programs and the application of special education protections. Zais, in response to a question from Sen. Al Franken, claimed that giving parents a choice leads to improved outcomes, although he was unaware of specific research indicating otherwise. Blew, on the other hand, reassured the senators that schools receiving federal funding must adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, despite concerns raised about a Florida scholarship program that compromises certain legal rights in exchange for tuition assistance for special needs children.
Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat, who previously attempted to block DeVos’s confirmation, emphasized that Congress did not permit the Every Student Succeeds Act to be used as a means to promote vouchers in states. She also expressed concerns about the Education Department’s approval of state accountability plans that fail to meet the law’s requirements for protecting historically underserved groups.
Zais reassured Murray that if confirmed, he would work to ensure that the Education Department follows the federal law specified in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Alexander, focusing on the same issue, made it clear that he did not want the Education Department to impose its own regulations on states in violation of the law. Zais pledged to adhere to the boundaries set by the law.
Lastly, the topic of guns was brought up by Sen. Chris Murphy, who asked Zais about his stance on a South Carolina bill requiring students to learn about the Second Amendment through a curriculum recommended by the National Rifle Association, which sparked controversy.
Zais expressed his belief that students should have knowledge of the Second Amendment, but he does not support a curriculum created by the NRA and did not endorse the bill related to it.
Murray also inquired about the pending guidelines for how campuses should handle allegations of sexual assault under Title IX. DeVos had previously revoked the rules introduced during the Obama administration.
Murray expressed concern over the lack of progress, as the interim guidelines seem to contradict the previous guidance and potentially allow schools to evade responsibility for protecting survivors.
Blew acknowledged the impatience regarding the lack of progress, but stated that it would be inappropriate to comment on the process itself.
Both Blew and Zais agreed that sexual assault is unacceptable, with Zais emphasizing the department’s responsibility to establish clear guidance to assist colleges in addressing this issue.
The committee was also scheduled to discuss the nomination of Timothy Kelly for assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education. However, his nomination was withdrawn by the administration after offensive blog posts written by Kelly came to light, targeting Muslims, women and girls in science careers, and Head Start parents.
Apart from DeVos, Peter Oppenheimer, the assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs, is the only nominee who has been confirmed by the Senate. Three other nominees, along with Blew and Zais, are awaiting confirmation. The Trump Administration recently announced the nomination of Johnny Collett for assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. Collett currently holds the position of director of special education outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Initially, the nomination process for the Education Department was very slow, and at one point, the department had the highest vacancy rate among all Cabinet-level agencies. However, in recent months, the pace of nominations has picked up.