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Secretary DeVos testifies before Senate Appropriations subcommittee

By Erik Peterson

On June 6, hours before afterschool advocates took to the Hill to meet with 200 members of Congress, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (LHHS) on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget proposal. Senators of both parties who questioned the proposed elimination of the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) initiative brought up the topic of federal afterschool funding.

Just as the House hearing last month was highly partisan and politically charged, so was the Senate hearing. Democrats and DeVos clashed about the federal role in protecting students from discrimination, whether federal laws would apply to students who used vouchers to attend private schools, and about cuts to federal grant and loan programs.

Republicans were considerably friendlier to DeVos, but many expressed their support for programs that were on the chopping block, including Community Learning Centers, Perkins Career and Technical Education program, student grants for higher education and Impact Aid. Repeatedly, DeVos reiterated well-rehearsed lines such as “if schools are taking federal funds, they need to follow federal law” while refusing to elaborate. While the partisanship was palpable, DeVos remained measured and calm.

Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) all echoed support for Community Learning Centers and afterschool funding. Sen. Manchin cited Pam Shope and her two sons from West Virginia, who were in town for the Afterschool for All Challenge and attended the hearing. Sen. Shaheen talked about a letter she had received from a student in New Hampshire in support of Community Learning Centers. Her exchange with Sec. DeVos is captured in a video that has had more than 3,200 views so far this week.

The primary response from the Secretary to all the support for Community Learning Centers was to say the program lacked evidence that is was effective; however, senators replied that the evidence base is there.

Specific member remarks on afterschool are outlined below:

Chairman Blunt pointed out that outright cuts to programs such as the Community Learning Centers will be “all but impossible” to cut in his committee.

Sen. Shaheen cited a student who wrote to her about his afterschool program and what a difference it has made to him and his community. She quoted the student, who described his childhood as one of poverty, lack of connection to his birth parents, and feelings of being an outcast. He described the impact the afterschool program had on his life. Shaheen noted that DeVos, in her opening statement, said that she seeks to support programs that have meaningful results. Shaheen said that Community Learning Centers do provide meaningful results and the proposed budget would take them away. “What would you say” to that student, she asked.

DeVos responded that ESSA provides flexibility for situations such as the scenario Shaheen described. Shaheen interrupted to say that a state like New Hampshire doesn’t have the flexibility to support afterschool programs if the federal funds are stripped.

Sen. Schatz reiterated Shaheen’s assertion that flexibility does not exist without funding and that claiming that Community Learning Centers, Title II, and CTE will enjoy new flexibility is their budgets are cut is false. Schatz also observed that localities don’t want “flexibility”; they want resources.

DeVos replied that she has heard from state and local leaders that they do want flexibility.

Sen. Capito voiced her concern about cuts to Community Learning Centers, which she said are valuable for myriad reasons in West Virginia. She asked what the alternative is for kids in her state, where they are $500 million “in the hole.”

DeVos reiterated that the decisions in the budget proposal were based in large part on the reported results of the program, and that the results from Community Learning Centers were not favorable and were outside the core mission of ED. According to a wealth of widely-available research, Community Learning Centers programs can lay claim to powerful positive academic, physical, and social benefits for their students.

Sen. Manchin welcomed Pam Shope and her sons from a West Virginia 21st Century Community Learning site.

Sen. Baldwin asked DeVos to speak to the cut to the Perkins Career and Technical Education program, as well as eliminations of the Community Learning Centers and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), all of which she noted can be used to support STEM education. She noted that the proposal includes an unauthorized $20 million grant program for STEM and asked how that is sufficient to support all the cuts in the budget totaling approximately $1.5 billion in formula funding for every state.

DeVos said that reauthorizing HEA, including CTE, needs to be part of the conversation. She said the grant program is meant to foster creativity and innovation.

Both bodies of Congress have now heard testimony from DeVos on the administration’s budget. They are expected to embark on drafting their respective education appropriations bills and ultimately come up with a plan to fund the government before September 30, 2017.

To view a webcast of the hearing, click here.