DeVos’ education hearing erupts into partisan debate

Betsy DeVos vigorously defended her work steering taxpayer dollars from traditional public schools.
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, testifies at her confirmation hearing in Washington, Jan. 17, 2017.
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, testifies at her confirmation hearing in Washington, Jan. 17, 2017.

WASHINGTON — At her confirmation hearing on Tuesday to be education secretary, Betsy DeVos vigorously defended her work steering taxpayer dollars from traditional public schools, arguing that it was time to move away from a “one size fits all” system and toward newer models for students from preschool to college.

The hearing quickly became a heated and partisan debate that reflected the nation’s political divide on how best to spend public money in education.

Republicans applauded DeVos’ work to expand charter schools and school vouchers, which give families public funds to help pay tuition at private schools. Democrats criticized her for wanting to “privatize” public education and pushed her, unsuccessfully, to support making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

DeVos, a billionaire with a complex web of investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from federal education policy, was the first nominee of President-elect Donald Trump to have a Senate hearing without completing an ethics review on how she planned to avoid conflicts of interest. Democrats pointed out that in the past, Republicans had insisted that no hearings be conducted before those reviews were complete.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, limited the questioning to one round of five minutes for each senator, prompting howls from Democrats, who noted that previous hearings had included two rounds of questions.

“It suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.

With time limited, Democrats confronted DeVos with rapid-fire questions, demanding that she explain her family’s contributions to groups that support so-called conversion therapy for gay people; her donations to Republicans and their causes, which she agreed totaled about $200 million over the years; her past statements that government “sucks” and that public schools are a “dead end”; and the poor performance of charter schools in Detroit, where she resisted legislation that would have blocked chronically failing charter schools from expanding.

Under questioning, DeVos said it would be “premature” to say whether she would continue the Obama administration’s policy requiring uniform reporting standards for sexual assaults on college campuses. She told Murphy, whose constituents include families whose children were killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that it should be “left to locales” to decide whether guns are allowed in schools, and that she supported Trump’s call to ban gun-free zones around schools. She also denied that she had personally supported conversion therapy.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pressed DeVos on how she could oversee the Education Department, the largest provider of student loans, given that she had no experience running a large bureaucracy and that neither she nor her children had ever taken out a student loan.

“So you have no personal experience with college financial aid?” Warren asked.

DeVos, who did not attend public schools or send her children to public schools, argued that vouchers and charter schools were simply a way of offering poor parents the kind of school choice that wealthy parents have long been able to afford.

She described a visit she and her husband, an heir to the Amway fortune, made to a Christian school in her hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a turning point in her career as a school choice advocate. “We saw the struggles and sacrifices many of these families faced when trying to choose the best educational option for their children,” she said. “For me, this was not just an issue of public policy but of national injustice.”

But Democrats said research showed that voucher programs had done little to raise achievement among poor students.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked DeVos, “Can you commit to us that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?”

DeVos began to demur, saying that “not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them” and that she would work to find “common ground” to give parents “options.”

“I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public education,” Murray said.

Alexander, himself a former education secretary, argued that DeVos’ support of charter schools and vouchers put her in the “mainstream” of public opinion, and that her critics were outside it. He noted that charter schools, which are publicly funded but typically run independently of local school districts and teachers’ unions, have been supported by Republican and Democratic presidents going back to Bill Clinton.

Democrats, however, argued that DeVos’ support went well beyond charter schools, to include the more contentious policy of sending public money to private and religious schools.

“Charter schools are not the issue here,” said Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, where Democrats pushed the nation’s first law allowing charter schools nearly three decades ago. He noted that 37 states prohibit the use of public dollars for religious schools.

One Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, expressed concern about DeVos’ enthusiasm for school choice — a moot point for many of her constituents, given the vastness of her state.

“When there is no way to get to an alternative option for your child, the best parent is left relying on a public school system that they demand to be there for their kids,” she said, asking DeVos to ensure that her commitment to traditional public education was as “strong and robust” as her passion for school choice.

Categories: News

Leave a Reply