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As DeVos Confirmation Hearing Looms, Here’s How They Went for Past Nominees

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 11, 2017 5 min read
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Based on reactions from Senate Democrats and others in the education community, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is likely to face some heat when her confirmation hearing takes place Jan. 17 before the Senate education committee. But how will she fare compared with previous nominees who have gone under the microscope?

First, here are a couple of general questions about DeVos’ hearing:

  • Will Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, allow multiple rounds of questions, or will he keep things pretty snappy? Part of the answer may depend on the tone of the hearing.
  • How many questions will focus strictly on DeVos’ policy positions? And how many questions will deal with her background as a big GOP political donor and her connections to political causes and candidates?

Below is a look back at the experience of five past nominees for education secretary. All of them were eventually confirmed by the full Senate.

Richard W. Riley

In a scenario unlikely to be repeated with DeVos, President Bill Clinton’s nominee for education secretary was confirmed by the unanimous consent of the Senate. Riley, a Democrat who had previously been South Carolina’s governor, served as secretary from 1993 until 2000. Unlike the last name on this list, Riley’s confirmation hearing was before a Senate committee controlled by a Democrat, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Sitting beside Riley to support his nomination was Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. “He’s a nationally recognized leader in the areas of public education reform,” Thurmond said in his opening statement. Thurmond highlighted Riley’s work on the South Carolina Education Improvement Act of 1984.

The Senate committee that considered Riley’s nomination didn’t even include education in its name as it does now (as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee)—in 1993 it was called the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. You can watch the full hearing below:

Rod Paige

Paige, who was President George W. Bush’s first education secretary, had a relatively easy confirmation process and was confirmed by a voice vote of the Senate in 2001. But just how much have the times, and politics, changed since then?

Here’s what National Education Association President Bob Chase said about Paige after the Houston district superintendent was nominated: “What we know of him has for the most part been positive. He’s demonstrated he is committed to quality public education and quality urban education.”

And here’s American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman on Paige’s nomination: “His experience in urban education will be helpful in keeping the nation’s schools on the path to reform.”

Both unions had worked hard to get Al Gore elected in 2000. The AFT and NEA did the same for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it’s safe to say their approach to DeVos’ nomination is markedly different. Paige had close ties to the Bush family that went back more than two decades before he was confirmed. DeVos can’t say the same about her prior relationship with Trump.

Margaret Spellings

Like DeVos, Spellings was nominated by a Republican president—also Bush—and confirmed by a GOP-controlled Senate in 2005. Spellings didn’t face a ton of pushback when Bush nominated her to replace Paige—it took only a voice vote in the Senate to confirm Spellings. As Education Week‘s Michelle Davis wrote about the Senate’s confirmation of Spellings, “Republicans and Democrats alike took to the Senate floor ... to praise Ms. Spellings.”

Here’s what Sen. Kennedy said about her during the Senate committee confirmation hearing: “We’ve had our differences, but I believe she’s an inspired choice to be secretary of education at this critical moment in our nation’s history.” He also called her a “consistent champion for improving and strengthening public education.”

And Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., called Spellings “eminently well qualified” for the job.

Like Paige, Spellings had close ties to Bush before becoming secretary. She previously served as Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser, and was a primary architect of the No Child Left Behind Act. And Dodd, for one, did use her nomination to express some criticisms of NCLB. But it didn’t create serious roadblocks to her confirmation.

Arne Duncan

Guess who said this about Duncan during his 2009 confirmation hearing: “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, you’re the best.”

If you guessed Sen. Alexander, who later became one of Duncan’s biggest critics, congratulations. And that pretty much sums up Duncan’s smooth confirmation process. He got the Senate’s approval through a voice vote.

Republican Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma also had kind things to say about Duncan during his confirmation process. And Duncan, in turn, praised his predecessor Spellings’ work on the Teacher Incentive Fund.

John B. King Jr.

Your memory of King’s confirmation is probably somewhat fresher than the others. By the time King’s confirmation hearing came up in a Republican-controlled Senate, Alexander (and some of his Democratic colleagues) had a less positive impression of education policy under Obama. And he did get asked about several prickly issues.

And Alexander warned him that the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act aimed to rein in the department King was nominated to lead.

However, in general, King didn’t get torched in his confirmation hearing before Alexander’s committee. In contrast with the other nominees we’ve listed, there’s a final Senate vote tally associated with King: 49 senators voted to confirm him, with 40 voting against.

Below is a table from the Senate about the confirmation process and votes on the education secretary nominees from President Jimmy Carter through George W. Bush:

Photos: Secretary of Education-designate Arne Duncan testifies during the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on his nomination in January 2009 (Christopher Powers/Education Week); Margaret Spellings greets Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., second from left, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., look on after her confirmation hearing in 2005 (Sevans/Education Week).

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