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Democrats Press Betsy DeVos on Privatization, ESSA, and LGBT Rights

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — January 17, 2017 9 min read
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Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, sought to use her confirmation hearing to beat back the notion that she would undermine public education as head of the department, as Democrats pressed her on everything from her views on the civil rights of gay and lesbian students, to states’ responsibilities for students in special education, and guns in schools.

“If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools,” DeVos said. “But, if a school is troubled, 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 also noted that her mother, Elsa Prince, was a public school teacher.

But those assurances didn’t seem to quell the anxieties of Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking member. “I have major concerns with how you have spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools,” she said.

In the early stages of a tense hearing that lasted three and a half hours, Murray asked DeVos if she would be willing to commit not to “cut a penny from public education” or use her perch at the department to privatize public schools. DeVos said she would seek to give parents and children the best educational options possible, which Murray essentially took as a no.

DeVos didn’t delve into the specifics on many of the big questions on the table, like whether she would rein in the department’s office of civil rights, or how she would handle key details of the federal student lending program. And at times she seemed unclear on key policy details, including during a pair of exchanges with Democratic senators on whether federal special education laws should apply to all schools. (More here.)

She did make it clear that she would not force states to adopt voucher programs—either through federal regulations or legislation. Instead, she said, states should get to decide whether they want to embrace private school choice.

DeVos on Federalism

DeVos put a lot of emphasis on state and local decisionmaking power. She told Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that it should be up to states and districts to decide how schools that get taxpayer money meet the needs of students with disabilities and report instances of bullying. Kaine pressed her on the federal requirement, noting that the Individuals with Disabilities Act is a federal law, and DeVos amended her answer to say the enforcement question was “worth consideration.” (Later, under questioning from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., DeVos said that schools must follow laws like the IDEA.) More on this exchange from Christina Samuels.

Earlier, she told Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that she thinks it should be up to states and districts to decide whether guns belong in schools, citing the example of a rural school that might have to defend itself from grizzly bears.

DeVos is an unusual pick to lead the Education Department. Unlike past education secretaries, she hasn’t been a governor, school superintendent, or college president. She’s perhaps best known for chairing, until her nomination, the American Federation for Children, which supports private school vouchers, education savings accounts, and other forms of educational choice around the country.

A megadonor mostly to Republican Party candidates and causes, she would also be the first billionaire secretary of education. Her father-in-law is Dick DeVos Sr., the founder of Amway; Forbes recently estimated the DeVos family’s net worth at $5.1 billion.

The DeVoses have helped finance campaigns of more than half a dozen GOP lawmakers on the Senate education committee, and contributed to a range of conservative causes.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the education committee said that her status as a major donor and her support for choice are not reasons enough to oppose her nomination, saying, “I believe she is the mainstream of public opinion and her critics are not.”

He stressed, for example, that there are plenty of Democrats who, like DeVos, support charter schools, including President Barack Obama and both of his education secretaries.

And he said that arguing against public school vouchers is akin to arguing against college loans or grants, which can be used at religious institutions. “Many of us believe competition produces the best colleges. It might produce the best [K-12] schools,” he said.

The committee is scheduled to vote on DeVos’ nomination next Tuesday, if her ethics paperwork is cleared in time.

DeVos on ESSA

If she’s confirmed, DeVos and her team would play a major role in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bipartisan law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015. States are slated to begin submitting their ESSA plans in April, and it will be up to DeVos and company to sign off on them.

In her opening statement, DeVos said she would work with lawmakers to implement ESSA “the way that Congress intended—with local communities freed from burdensome regulations from Washington.” Republicans in Congress have already put the Obama administration’s accountability regulations for the new law on the chopping block.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., noted the ESSA accountability regulations have the support of the Council of Chief State School Officers and that states want certainty as they go ahead with ESSA implementation. DeVos said she’d take a look at the regulations but would not commit to keeping the regulations on the books.

Financial Conflicts

Murray asked DeVos whether she thinks Trump’s decision to turn his businesses over to his children effectively deals with conflict interest questions. DeVos indicated the president-elect could have gone further. Murray then asked about some of DeVos’ potential business conflicts, including her family’s investments in K-12 Inc., an online learning company, and a student loan company.

“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. Period,” DeVos said.

Murray also wanted to know if DeVos planned to continue contributing to Republican campaigns once she’s in office. In the 2016 cycle alone, DeVos and her husband gave Republicans more than $2.7 million in campaign donations.

DeVos promised to step away from funding GOP candidates while she’s education secretary. “If I’m confirmed I will not be involved or engaged in political contributions, and my husband won’t be either,” she told Murray. She also said she would draw only a $1 salary as head of the department.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., was much more pointed. He tried to pin DeVos down on just how much her family has donated to Republicans, which he guessed was in the neighborhood of $200 million.

“Do you think if your family hadn’t made millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be here today?”

DeVos told him it’s possible she might have been chosen as education secretary even if she wasn’t a megadonor, given her long-standing commitment to children.

Michigan Record and Choice

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a charter school supporter and former superintendent in Denver, asked DeVos what she had learned from lagging student achievement and persistent achievement gaps at charter schools in Detroit, whose charter sector she helped to create. Some parents in the Motor City have complained that while parents have plenty of options, most of those aren’t high quality.

“There’s no practical difference between being forced to go to a terrible school and [choosing] between five terrible schools,” Bennet said.

DeVos told him that, in her view, a lot is going right for charters in Detroit. Struggling charter schools in the state are sometimes closed, she said, whereas foundering public schools are not. Still, the Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan-based organization started and funded by DeVos, has been criticized for helping to defeat a legislative push to create a commission that would have beefed up oversight of both charter and public schools in the city.

DeVos on Civil Rights

Trump’s incendiary campaign trail rhetoric attacking immigrants, Muslims, and others has civil rights advocates worried about whether DeVos would look out for those students at the Education Department. Members of DeVos’ family helped finance an anti-gay-marriage amendment to Michigan’s constitution in 2004, although some in Michigan say her feelings on gay rights have shifted in recent years.

DeVos sought to assuage these concerns in her opening statement. “Every child in America deserves to be in a safe environment that is free from discrimination,” she said.

But some Democrats wanted more specifics. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked DeVos, if she believes in gay conversion therapy, given that members of her extended family have given money to organizations, like Focus on the Family, that support the practice. DeVos said that she doesn’t believe in conversion theory.

Rural Education

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo, a former chairman of the committee, noted that “rural and frontier” schools like those in his state sometimes have their own unique challenges. He wanted to know how DeVos would seek to help them.

DeVos agreed that rural schools and settings “require different approaches and different options.” Distance learning, she said, could help rural schools offer a broader range of choices.

Heated Disagreement

In the run up to the hearing, DeVos’ nomination drew intense debate, an unusual backdrop for an education secretary’s confirmation hearing, which have typically been relatively free of drama in the past.

On the pro-DeVos side: DeVos attracted significant support from Republican heavy-hitters like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Bush and Rice worked with DeVos at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Bush started in 2008 and which Rice led when Bush ran for president in 2016. Both Romney and Bush have received campaign donations from the DeVos family. Groups supporting DeVos include the Center for Education Reform, which supports choice, and the Home School Legal Defense Association.

On the anti-DeVos side: Both American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García spoke out in days prior to the hearing against her. A new congressional caucus of 11 Democrats, the House Public Education Caucus, tried to rally support against her nomination. (House members do not confirm cabinet nominees.) And the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of various civil rights groups, urged the Senate to reject her nomination.

The original committee hearing for DeVos had been scheduled for Jan. 11. Alexander said last week the postponement was due to scheduling reasons, although at the time the hearing was moved, DeVos’ ethics paperwork had yet to be fully reviewed and cleared by the Office for Government Ethics. That contributed to the delayed hearing, sources said.

Photos (from top):

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives with former Sen. Joe Lieberman, right, before testifying Tuesday at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster);

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the education committee, looks to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, as he questions DeVos. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster).

The nominee greets Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the education committee. before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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