WASHINGTON (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced blistering questioning from House Democrats on Tuesday as they confronted her on gun control, racism and LGBT rights.
DeVos’ testimony in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee got so tense at times, that the chairman made a point of thanking DeVos for her poise when he concluded the meeting.
DeVos, already reeling after a series of rocky high-profile interviews, unveiled some details of a federal commission on school safety that she will be chairing. The commission, formed after the Florida high school shooting that killed 17 people, will comprise herself as well as the secretaries of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the Justice Department.
DeVos said the commission will begin work within the next few weeks. A spokeswoman for DeVos later added that the body will also involve students, teachers, law enforcement and mental health professionals as experts.
DeVos said the commission will, among other things, consider whether to ban gun sales to children under 21. Trump initially spoke in favor of such a proposal, but then backtracked on it after meeting with representatives of the National Rifle Association. DeVos would not tell the subcommittee whether she personally supports the idea or not.
DeVos also defended states and communities’ rights to decide whether to arm teachers.
“The question of school personnel being armed is very much one for local communities and states to grapple with,” she said.
DeVos added later in the hearing, “If there are going to be guns in schools, they need to be in the hands of the right people, those who are going to protect students and ensure their safety.”
DeVos also faced scathing criticism from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who said that minority students were being disciplined much more frequently than their white peers for similar infractions. The Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that instructed schools to pay attention to the problem. DeVos is now reviewing that guidance, and civils rights group fear she intends to rescind it. She would not talk about her plans at the hearing.
“Your head is in the sand about racial bias and racial discrimination,” Lee said. “Madame Secretary, you just don’t care much about the rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.”
Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, launched into a tense back-and-forth with DeVos on whether she would require private schools that receive federal funding to follow federal civil rights law that prohibit sexual, racial and religious discrimination.
DeVos has been pushing for increasing public funding of alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools — such as charter school or private school programs. Critics say that private schools get to choose which students to admit and may discriminate against minorities.
“Will you guarantee as secretary of education that that money is included with non-discrimination policies for those private schools?”
“Federal law must be followed when federal money is involved,” DeVos said.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos kept repeating her answer.
“Is there some problem? Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Devos finally said.