During her confirmation hearing on Tuesday evening, Betsy DeVos did her best to appear moderate and conciliatory, but the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was clearly deeply divided on Donald Trump’s pick for Education secretary.
Republicans hailed the Michigan billionaire, who is a strong advocate for charter schools and publicly funded vouchers for private education, as a reformer who will give parents more choice in their children’s education. In his introduction, former senator Joe Lieberman said DeVos’s lack of experience — she’s never attended public school or held a government job — is an asset. “She doesn’t come from within the education Establishment. But honestly, I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job,” he said. “We need a change agent.”
However, Democrats had many issues with DeVos, beginning with the hearing itself. They initially complained that there should be no hearing since the Office of Government Ethics has not finished reviewing DeVos’s ethics and financial disclosures for potential conflicts of interest. Then Senator Lamar Alexander, the committee’s chairman, limited each senator to just five minutes of questioning, which Democratic senators said was insufficient time, especially considering DeVos’s wealth and controversial views on education.
In the time they did have, Democrats grilled DeVos on potential conflicts of interest related to her family’s contributions to conservative religious organizations, her qualifications, and her advocacy for policies that they say would take funding away from public schools. DeVos repeatedly tried to dodge questions by cheerily telling senators that she looked forward to working with them as secretary, but as listed below, there were still many contentious exchanges.
A vote on DeVos’s nomination is set for next Tuesday, but Alexander said it will be rescheduled if her ethics review is not completed by the end of the week.
Privatizing Public Schools
Senator Patty Murray asked DeVos if she would promise not to privatize public schools or cut funding from public education. DeVos said, “Not all schools are working for the students,” and she hopes to work with Murray to find ways to “empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”
“I take that as not be willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education,” Murray responded.
When Senator Al Franken asked DeVos to give her opinion on whether schools should be judged by students’ proficiency or growth, DeVos seemed unfamiliar with the terms. Franken explained that the question of which metric should be used in federal education policy has been a subject of debate for years. “It surprises me you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.
Free College Tuition
Senator Bernie Sanders asked DeVos if she’d work with him to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. She called Sanders’s proposal a “really interesting idea,” but added, “We have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody will pay for it.”
Campus Sexual Assault
DeVos said that while her “mom’s heart has really piqued” on the issue, committing to uphold 2011 regulations that require colleges to investigate sexual assault more thoroughly would be “premature.” The guidelines now require schools to use a lower standard of evidence — a “preponderance of evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt” — in administrative disciplinary hearings on sexual assault.
Senator Bob Casey noted that DeVos has donated to a group that sued the Department of Education over the new standard, saying it denies the accused their due process.
Later, Senator Murray asked if DeVos would consider unwanted kissing and groping, like the behavior described by Trump on the Access Hollywood video, to be sexual assault. She said yes.
Students With Disabilities
When Senator Tim Kaine asked if all taxpayer-funded schools should be required to comply with the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, DeVos said, “I think that is a matter best left to the states.”
“Are you saying that some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and some states might not be so good, and then people can just move around the country if they don’t like the way their kids are being treated?” Kaine asked.
Later, DeVos walked back her remarks, saying she does think schools that accept federal funding must comply with federal law. When Senator Maggie Hassan asked if she was unaware of the federal law protecting students with disabilities, DeVos said, “I may have confused it.”
Guns in Schools
DeVos told Senator Christopher Murphy — who represents Newtown, Connecticut — that she thinks the issue of whether guns should be allowed in schools “is best left to locales and states to decide.” Referencing an earlier remark from Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi about a school in his state that is threatened by bear attacks, DeVos said, “There’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”