DeVos vows to be advocate for ‘great’ public schools
President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was in the hot seat Tuesday evening as Senate Democrats grilled the GOP mega-donor about her positions on public education and potential conflicts of interest.
DeVos vowed during the three-and-a-half-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that she would be an advocate for public education while defending her support for school choice and charter schools.
“The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools,” DeVos said. “If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools.”
“But if a school is in trouble, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative,” she said.
When Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked if she would privatize public education, DeVos declined to rule that out.
“I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students,” DeVos responded.
“We acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them, and I’m hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”
Democrats also pressed DeVos about any potential conflicts of interest, which DeVos insisted would not be an issue if confirmed.
“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved,” DeVos said. “I will not be conflicted, period.”
The billionaire GOP donor told the committee that she would cease making political donations.
DeVos’s past contributions have come under scrutiny since she donated to several of the GOP members on the committee, but allies of DeVos argue that she faces a double standard since teachers unions contributed to some of the panel’s Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who called on DeVos prior to the hearing to repay a decades-old fine for her now-defunct political action committee, asked how much her family has donated to the Republican Party. While she couldn’t give a hard number, she didn’t dispute Sanders’s estimate of $200 million.
She also tried to clear up that she never believed in LGBT conversion therapy and believes all students should receive a good education regardless of sexual orientation.
The question arose due to her past donation to a group that believes in the controversial practice, but DeVos pushed back that may be “confusing” it with a contribution from one of her family members.
“I fully embrace equality,” DeVos said. “Every student should attend any school and should be free of discrimination.”
DeVos’s shakiest moment of the hearing came when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked her about the debate within the education community over whether students’ success should be measured by proficiency or growth.
She hesitated several times when answering the question: “I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area.”
Franken cut in to correct her, saying what she was explaining was growth and saying he was specifically asking her about the debate.
“It surprises me you don’t know this issue, and Mr. Chairman I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions,” Franken said.
A chorus of Democrats during the hearing called for a second round of questioning, noting DeVos’s paperwork was still incomplete.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) denied Democrats’ pleas for more time, only granting it to himself and Murray, the committee’s top Democrat.
But he said that DeVos must answer written questions by Thursday at 5 p.m. and that her paperwork will be completed by Friday so committee members can review it by Tuesday, when the committee will meet in executive session to consider her nomination.
“I’m not going to change the rules in the middle of the game,” Alexander said in his opening remarks about Democrats’ request for more questioning, adding that there was no precedent of that for President Obama’s past Education nominees.
Murray, along with other Democratic senators, expressed disappointment for not receiving additional time and noted concerns about not having DeVos’s completed ethics review by the time of the hearing. She also repeatedly called on DeVos to release her tax returns, which is not required.
“I am extremely disappointed we’re moving forward with this hearing before receiving proper paperwork from Office of Government Ethics,” Murray said.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to protect Ms. DeVos from,” she said later in the hearing.
Murray asked for a second hearing and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed that call Tuesday night.
“It’s 8:15 at night. They wouldn’t be sitting here if they didn’t have additional questions,” she said.
DeVos needs a simple majority of 50 votes to be confirmed as secretary of Education. While one Democratic senator has said she won’t support DeVos, no Republicans have so far expressed opposition.
DeVos was introduced by former Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), a Democrat-turned-Independent, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is a member of the committee.
Republican senators enthusiastically greeted DeVos and glided through their five minutes each of questioning. Unlike other hearings for some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, no protesters interrupted the hearing and the packed room was largely silent as she took questions.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) knocked Democrats’ repeated requests, arguing that they wasted time to ask DeVos more questions.
“I cannot help but think that if my friends on the other side of the aisle had used their time to ask questions rather than complaining about the lack of a second round, they each would have been able to get a second question,” Collins quipped.