U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan got a taste of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s evasive maneuvers Wednesday in a testy exchange over the Trump administration’s education budget proposals.
“Madam Secretary, seriously, you’re not answering the question,” an exasperated Pocan said as he neared the end of his five allotted minutes to question the controversial school-choice proponent during her appearance before the House Education Appropriations subcommittee.
It was DeVos’s first appearance before Congress since her Senate confirmation hearing in January when she suggested that schools might want to keep guns on hand to defend against grizzly bears.
The hearing focused largely on the administration’s proposed cuts to school programs while boosting funding for private-school vouchers and charter schools.
Pocan, from Wisconsin, said that the state’s pioneering work on taxpayer-funded private school vouchers was a “failed experiment” that resulted in lackluster test scores, unaccountability and the ability for private schools to exclude kids with disabilities.
Pointing to a lawsuit by parents of kids at Right Step Inc., a Milwaukee voucher school, because only 7 percent of students were proficient in English and none were proficient in math, he asked DeVos, “Would you send you kid to a school where 93 percent of the students aren’t English proficient and 0 percent are math proficient?”
DeVos thanked Pocan for the question, then launched into a history of vouchers in Wisconsin, dropping the name of Annette Polly Williams, the late Democratic state lawmaker from Milwaukee who was an early voucher advocate.
“Who now says it’s not lived up to its promise,” interjected Pocan, leaving him open to a technicality.
“And who’s no longer living,” DeVos pointed out.
Williams, for the record, ended up disowning the choice program and accusing its supporters of exploiting black children.
The pointed but unproductive questioning continued with DeVos pointing out at least three times that Milwaukee has 28,000 kids in voucher programs.
For his part, Pocan pointed out that the last expansion of the choice program resulted in three-fourths of the public money going to parents whose kids were already enrolled in the private schools they were getting vouchers for, and two-thirds went to families making over $100,000 a year.
“Do you think your federal program will support this sort of thing, so it’s not to encourage new outlets in education, simply to give money to people who already attend those schools?” he asked.
“Well, I really applaud Milwaukee for empowering parents to make the decisions that they think are right for their students and children,” DeVos answered.
“I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear,” Pocan said before taking another stab at it, which resulted in Pocan interrupting again to get DeVos on track.
“Please give her the opportunity to answer the question,” said committee chairman Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
“She’s answering a different question than I’m asking,” Pocan complained.