As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepared to testify before a House committee on her proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, members of Congress received word from her staff members that DeVos had been withholding from lawmakers information about her spending plans as they've been developed in recent months.
Information about what drove DeVos's budgeting decisions was omitted from documents submitted to Congress ahead of the hearing, a staffer wrote in an email to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee.
"Our concern is about a breakdown in communication, a culture of secrecy and a fear of retaliatory action that has prevented Budget Service from providing House and Senate appropriators and staff, and for that matter, the public, with key information about the department’s plans for fiscal year 2019," wrote a career department official in the email, which the New York Times obtained. "Given the potential for some of these proposals to radically impact the way the department carries out its mission, Congress should probably see this."
Included in the proposals, DeVos's budget calls for a five percent spending reduction across the agency, targeting several regional offices that operate under the Office of Civil Rights and after-school programs that serve children in low-income communities.
The budget also proposes a $1 billion plan to steer students towards private and charter schools and away from public education.
During Tuesday's hearing, several of the committee members denounced the Secretary's proposals, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) concluding, "One thing is for sure: you do not have our students' best interests in mind."
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) became incensed over DeVos's lack of knowledge about the positive effects of after-school programs in lower-income school districts. After-school supervision and enrichment programs have been shown to reduce juvenile crime rates in several studies. The Secretary, Clark noted, eliminated funding for 21st Century Community Centers, programs which serve "80,000 kids in Florida alone," where 17 people were killed in a school shooting last month.
"Have you re-thought that, in light of school violence?" Clark asked.
"There's no data to show that [after-school programs] are effective in what the stated goal has been," said DeVos.
"What do you mean, there's no data? There is study after study after study," pressed Clark. "We will be glad to supply you with studies on the efficacy of after-school programs."
After questioning DeVos about cuts to the Office of Civil Rights, which ensures that students are not discriminated against in American schools, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) came to the conclusion that the Secretary does not "care much about the civil rights of black and brown children. This is horrible."
DeVos defended her plan to delay an Obama-era rule combating disproportionate numbers of minority students in special education classes and rescind guidance to ensure that black and Latino students are no longer disciplined far more often than their white peers.
I was raised in the South during the days of Jim Crow and segregated schools. Preventing racial bias in schools is personal to me. Betsy DeVos has no justification for undermining civil rights protections in classrooms. pic.twitter.com/H4VohXq4oZ— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) March 20, 2018
In her opening statement, DeLauro addressed the Secretary's withholding of information about the justification for her budget plan.
The justification "fails to include details on these plans which I am aware have been in the works for many months," said the congresswoman. "I need to know who was consulted, and why there was a deliberate choice to withhold this information for Congress's consideration."
DeVos's budget plan and the secrecy surrounding it surfaced, according to the Times, as tensions between the Secretary and employees have been inflamed by a contract dispute.
But while negotiations have reportedly left staffers feeling vulnerable in the department—and though it was announced the DOE employees will now have their communications with Congress screened—the official who wrote to the committee members indicated the threat of possible repercussions for speaking out did not outweigh the concerns about how things are being run.
"Things have gotten pretty awful here," wrote the official bluntly. "And at this point, employees are willing to accept whatever fallout comes with exercising a right to make sure Congress gets information it needs. Employees are tired of seeing their colleagues deputized into misleading Congress."
"This directly impinges on the critical work of this committee...it needs to stop," said DeLauro of the discouragement of open communications between the department and Congress.