US Representative Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who has emerged as a leading critic of the Trump administration, wanted a simple answer Wednesday from US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The secretary was testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee to sell the president’s education funding proposals, including a plan to sink $1.4 billion into a school choice initiative.
Clark waited patiently for her turn to question DeVos in the packed hearing room, and when the opportunity came, she asked about the private Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, Ind.
The school, Clark said, receives more than $665,000 in state vouchers, while noting in its handbook that it may deny admission to students from families where homosexual or “alternate gender identity” is practiced.
Leaning into her microphone and shaking her fist, Clark asked: If Indiana seeks federal funding as part of the president’s proposed voucher program, “will you stand up that this school be open to all students?”
All eyes turned to DeVos.
She thanked Clark for the inquiry and grinned as she tried to pivot to “broadly” discussing school choice.
Clark pounced, again shaking her fist and asking “is there a line for you on state flexibility?” Her eyes narrowing, Clark described DeVos as “the backstop for students and their right to access a quality education.”
“Would you in this case say ‘we are going to overrule and you cannot discriminate, whether it be on sexual orientation, race, special needs in our voucher programs.’ Will that be a guarantee from you for our students?” Clark asked.
DeVos demurred, extending a rocky back-and-forth between the officials, as a crowd of lawmakers and their aides, as well as reporters, watched the clash play out in the ornate chambers.
“For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that . . . ” DeVos said, as the glare of CSPAN cameras again captured her strained grin.
“So that’s a no,” Clark interjected, according to a video excerpt of the testimony posted to the congresswoman’s Twitter feed.
“Do you see any circumstance where the federal Department of Education under your leadership would say that a school was not qualified? What if they said ‘we are not accepting African-American students,’ but that was OK with the state? Does the state trump, do you see any situation where you would step in?” DeVos replied that federal Title IX protections are “broadly applicable across the board,” but she did not answer Clark directly.
“When it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students . . . ” DeVos said. An incredulous Clark again interrupted, telling DeVos, “This isn’t about parents making choices. This is about use of federal dollars. . . . Would you say to Indiana: ‘That school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars, or would you say the state has the flexibility in this situation?”
‘I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.’
DeVos began to respond, saying she believes “states continue to have flexibility” and Clark continued the attack.
“I want to make sure I get this right,” Clark said. “There is no situation of discrimination or exclusion, that if a state approved it for its voucher program, that you would step in and say ‘that’s not how we’re going to use our federal dollars.’ . . . Is that your testimony?”
DeVos reverted to talking points about school choice.
“The bottom line is, we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions,” she said. “Too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have do to do something different. . . . That is the focus, and states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions.”
Clark was indignant.
“I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students,” she said, as the chairman banged his gavel to end the questioning.
Our LGBT students deserve better than an administration that refuses to stand up for them. https://t.co/Wlry7ekPii— Katherine Clark (@RepKClark) May 24, 2017
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Education, defended DeVos on Wednesday evening in statement.
“As Secretary DeVos has made clear time and time again, protecting students’ civil rights under federal law is one of the department’s core missions,” Hill said. “The line of questioning during today’s hearing was about a theoretical voucher program the department has not proposed and included topics that aren’t covered under current federal law.”
Hill added that there is “a fundamental misunderstanding about the federal and state roles in education. When states design programs, and when schools implement them, it is incumbent on them to adhere to federal law. The Department of Education can and will intervene when federal law is broken.”
Hill said the federal grant program under consideration “would support states who apply for funding to develop school choice programs, and those states’ plans must adhere to federal law.”
But Clark doubled down on her criticism in a phone interview Wednesday night.
“[DeVos’s] testimony today showed that she has all the wrong instincts for this position,” Clark said. “The fact that she couldn’t find a way to stand up [against] something as fundamental as discrimination is, in my opinion, appalling and dangerous.”Material from the Washington Post was used in this report. Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed.