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Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing: What to Watch for

By Alyson Klein — January 17, 2017 8 min read
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It’s finally happening: Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, is set to testify before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at her confirmation hearing Tuesday.

In the past, confirmation hearings for an education secretary have typically been bipartisan love fests. But that’s not going to be the case this time around.

DeVos’ background as a voucher supporter who has never worked in a government, in a school district, or attended or sent her kids to public school has generated big backlash from educators and civil rights groups. In fact, 38 groups who don’t always see eye-to-eye on K-12 issues—including Democrats for Education Reform and the teachers’ unions—sent a letter Tuesday to Senate education committee leaders expressing big concerns about DeVos’ background and support for vouchers.

UPDATE: Check out DeVos’ opening statement here. She’ll emphasize her connection to public schools, including the fact that she’s the daughter of a public school teacher. “I will be a strong advocate for great public schools,” she plans to say.

At the same time, Republicans—including former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former first lady Barbara Bush—have embraced DeVos as someone who can train a set of fresh eyes on K-12 policy. And she’ll be introduced by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has worked with DeVos on school choice, according to the Washington Examiner.

We’ve already seen the impact of all that controversy on the process. DeVos’ hearing was actually supposed to have been held on Jan. 11, but was postponed to Jan. 17. Lawmakers cited the Senate schedule in explaining the delay, but other sources said the fact that the Office of Government Ethics hasn’t cleared DeVos’ paperwork also contributed.

Don’t expect the ethics issue to go away. DeVos—a billionaire and GOP mega-donor—may be asked about the fact that she left off of her disclosure documents a $125,000 donation to an anti-collective bargaining organization. (The transition team told the Washington Post that it was just an oversight and that she’ll update her form.)

The hearing is to start at 5 p.m., and you can watch a live webcast of it here. So what should you be watching for?

How will DeVos handle pre-K-12 issues beyond school choice?

DeVos’ work expanding charters in Michigan—a state that doesn’t have a whole lot of charter oversight—is almost certain to come up. But we don’t know much about her views on a range of other key issues, like accountability, teacher quality, education spending, and testing, not to mention civil rights issues. Those things could easily dominate the department’s work over DeVos’ first year in office, as the agency works to set the course for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Expect serious questions from Democrats—possibly including Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the panel—on how DeVos views the role of the office for civil rights, in part because civil rights organizations have raised serious concerns about DeVos’ record on LGBTQ rights and more.

Senators may even check to see if DeVos understands the office’s function, said Jamie Fasteau, a former aide to Murray and to former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

“Does [she] understand what the office of civil rights does, even if there’s a disagreement of about what that agency is doing going forward?” said Fasteau, who is now the director of education policy at the Emerson Collective. “These are very basic questions that I have no idea how she is going to answer.”

What does DeVos say about higher education and the department itself?

Trump said on the campaign trail that he wants to get rid of the Education Department, or maybe cut it “way, way down.” He may have backed off that since winning the White House, by naming DeVos as his education secretary. But she’ll almost certainly be asked about how she sees the agency’s scope and role.

What’s more, the federal government is a bigger player in financing higher education—through student loans and Pell Grants—than K-12 education. No one knows much about how DeVos sees that area of policy.

DeVos will need to give lawmakers a sense of her overall philosophy on the department and postsecondary policy, but she doesn’t have to prove that she’s mastered every last one of the in-the-weeds policy details, said James Bergeron, the president of the National Council on Higher Education Resources, and a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee.

“I think there’s plenty of room for the incoming secretary to learn about the issues that the department will have to address,” he said. “You just want to make sure she has a basic understanding of the department’s operations and a basic philosophy” for managing the agency.

Does DeVos distance herself from Trump on any issues impacting kids, like immigration and vaccines?

A bunch of Trump’s nominees to head up other agencies haven’t been shy about their differences with the president-elect, especially on national security issues. DeVos won’t have much power over, say, intelligence, but she will have to implement some laws and rules that could fly in the face of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

For instance, Fasteau suggested DeVos could be asked whether she will uphold a Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, that guarantees undocumented immigrant children access to public schools.

Or she could be asked how she feels about Trump’s statements during a GOP debate suggesting that he’s open to the idea that vaccines may cause health problems, such as autism. (This wasn’t just a campaign trail thing. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a vaccine skeptic, met with Trump recently to discuss the issue. )

And of course, DeVos could be asked whether, as secretary, she would speak out against instances of bullying of Muslim students, Latino students, and other minorities that some say have been on the rise since Trump was elected.

“I would be shocked if the quote unquote Trump effect doesn’t come up,” Bergeron said. He said he could see committee Democrats repeating offensive comments Trump has made on the campaign trail and asking DeVos, “What she would say to young children who overheard them?” That could put DeVos in a tough position, he said.

How do moderate and rural Republicans respond to DeVos?

Trump’s big campaign proposal on K-12 was for a $20 billion voucher program. But it’s hard to imagine some of the rural Republican moderates on the committee—like Sens. Susan Collins of Maine or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—being too enthusiastic about that proposal. It’s tough to make private school vouchers work for rural schools. (We wrote more about Trump’s proposals and rural schools here.)

“If you’re Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, you can’t go home and say I know we took away Title I, but you have a voucher program, so you’re all set,” Fasteau said, referring to the main program for educating disadvantaged kids, which some Republicans have said they want to allow to flow to private schools.

Bergeron, though, noted that expanded school choice can mean more than just vouchers, and so moderate Republicans and others could ask DeVos how her agenda would make room for magnet schools and other forms of choice.

How do liberal lions, including possible presidential contenders, respond to DeVos?

The Senate education committee’s roster includes some liberal superheroes who may run against Trump in 2020, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former presidential contender Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. They’ll want to get their vehement opposition to DeVos on the record, and maybe even score some YouTube-worthy moments.

And, since teachers’ unions and civil rights groups oppose her nomination, there’s no reason to hold back.

“For some of these Dems, it’s safe to go home and say, ‘Here are the list of ways I went after DeVos,’” Fasteau said. But DeVos’ lack of a record on a number of K-12 issues is actually going to make their job tougher, Fasteau said. “You’re trying to suss through a lack of things. It’s easier to go after somebody when you know” more about their principles.

Democrats may also note that lawmakers only get one round of questions, not two as they did at U.S. Secretary John B. King Jr.'s confirmation hearing last year.

How often do we hear the word “ethics” or the phrase “conflict of interest”?

Democrats are almost certain to ask about any potential conflicts of interests they find in DeVos’ financial disclosure forms. And they’ll bring up the more than $5 million in fines and late fees that All Children Matter, a political action committee DeVos once chaired and that has now been shuttered, owes the state of Ohio. (DeVos’ team has said the fines were politically motivated.)

Want more? Both halves of Politics K-12 were on Facebook Live Tuesday talking about the hearing. And last week, I chatted with American Public Media about DeVos—you can listen to that here.

Also, check out the stories we’ve written about DeVos’ background as a school choice advocate and Republican donor, including her donations to many of the lawmakers who will consider her confirmation. And read about her work in Michigan. Plus, take a look at some of the key questions that she could be asked.

Be sure to check out the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s confirmation bingo card here.

Photos: President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with his pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 9. --Paul Sancya/AP; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles as he is asked about running for president during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 29.--Carolyn Kaster/AP

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