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Split Responses to Betsy DeVos’ Testimony After Testy Confirmation Hearing

By Andrew Ujifusa & Alyson Klein — January 18, 2017 6 min read
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The Tuesday confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, provided some clarity on her views, but also left some key questions only partially answered or unanswered. And her answers on special education, accountability, and school choice provoked both positive and negative reactions. Below are some of the responses we’ve gathered to DeVos’ nomination hearing before the Senate education committee. Check back here for more reactions.

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

COPAA, which advocates for the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities, hasn’t taken an official position on DeVos. But Denise Marshall, the group’s executive director, expressed grave concerns with the confusion DeVos seemed to have about the federal statute governing special education, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Marshall said she was also concerned that DeVos seemed to view vouchers as a cure-all for various issues, including for special education.

“It’s pretty clear from last night that she is not and never has been an advocate for students with disabilities,” Marshall said in an interview. “The fact that she didn’t understand the difference between state and federal statute is pretty appalling. She didn’t even seem to know what the IDEA is or what her role would be in its enforcement.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education, where DeVos formerly served on the board of directors and which supports private school choice and test-based accountability.

“Betsy DeVos showed today why she is a hero of the education reform movement. She passionately articulated the case for school choice and parental control and expressed a deep commitment to children, especially at-risk students who are the biggest victims of failing K-12 schools,” Bush said in a statement after the hearing.


The advocacy group for gay, lesbian, and transgender students argued there wasn’t enough time to question DeVos on key issues, but said based on her answers it opposed her nomination.

“While we are relieved to hear DeVos rejecting the dangerous and thoroughly discredited practice of conversion therapy [for gay individuals] her family has previously supported, it was chilling to hear DeVos dodge questions about whether she would keep essential protections for transgender students, and basically refer all other civil rights protections for students with disabilities, students of color, and religious minority students ‘back to the states,’” GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a statement.

Great Lakes Education Project

The group that DeVos started in order to advocate for school choice and other issues in Michigan reiterated DeVos’ emphasis on standing up for parents and children over any particular education system.

National Education Association

Mary Kusler, the head of the teachers’ union’s Center for Advocacy, criticized DeVos for saying she backed federal vouchers for special education and demonstrating what Kusler called a lack of understanding about special education law and rights. And in an interview, she said that DeVos continuously and inappropriately used school choice as a crutch when she was asked about various issues.

“It was clear she came to the hearing with an agenda of privatizing our public education agenda,” Kusler said.

Kusler also said DeVos’ comments about the potential need for guns at schools was tone deaf, given that she was speaking to Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has advocated for stricter gun-control laws in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 that left 20 students and six staff dead.

Cato Institute

DeVos gave the right answers in deferring to Congress on issues like passing legislation to expand school choice, said Neal McCluskey, the director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, which advocates for libertarian K-12 policies. But there’s a catch, McCluskey added.

“What I don’t see is how that would be consistent with the promise candidate Trump made,” McCluskey said, referring to Trump’s plan to use $20 billion in federal money for vouchers. “She said the right things, but it seems awfully inconsistent with what her potential boss is saying he will do in education.”

And he said that despite criticisms about DeVos’ comments on the potential need for guns at a particular school to fend off grizzly bears attacks, for example McCluskey said there may well be many instances in which local communities decide that having firearms on campuses is appropriate.

AASA, the School Administrators Association

Most senators were only given about five minutes to ask questions, which irked committee Democrats. And Noelle Ellerson Ng, whose organization hasn’t taken a stance on DeVos’ nomination, but signed a letter expressing concerns about her lack of experience in public education and her support for vouchers, also wished there was more time to probe the nominee.

“I’m disappointed at the lack of opportunity for a more robust conversation,” said Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA. “It was clear that the questions were there and the answers have yet to be fully provided.”

She gave as examples DeVos’ confusion on enforcement of federal special education laws and higher education loans. And she said the nominee wasn’t clear on whether all schools, including private or virtual schools that receive public dollars, should be held to the same accountability standards.

And Ellerson Ng noted that the Senate education committee has a reputation for bipartisan work, which wasn’t on display during DeVos’ hearing.

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

DeVos is the first education secretary in the department’s 35-year history to be opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. And the umbrella organization, which represents dozens of groups that advocate on behalf of English-language learners, students in special education, and more, isn’t any happier with Trump’s pick after last night’s hearing.

“Nothing in that hearing reassured us,” said Liz King, the organization’s director of education policy, in an interview. The hearing “opened up new questions about her ability and commitment to enforcing civil rights and education laws.” The clearest example on this? An exchange with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in which DeVos didn’t appear to grasp that the Individuals with Disabilities Act is a federal law, and not subject to the whims of individual states. “That seemed to be a lack of understanding of the secretary of education’s responsibility for enforcing the law,” King said.

Center for Education Reform

DeVos got great reviews from this advocacy organization, which supports school choice. Democratic senators, not so much.

“I thought she was complete grace under fire,” said Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for opportunity and innovation. She said DeVos showed she is a “passionate, knowledgeable, committed advocate” who is willing to support “disrupting arcane forms of education.”

And, Allen added, “It’s unfortunate that Democratic senators piled onto one of the few missteps that were largely the result of being under fire, not of not knowing.” In Allen’s view, DeVos, “did very well and then had some challenges when they treated her like she was guilty of some major crime in supporting [changes to] how education does business in this country.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman, said committee members would vote on DeVos’ nomination on Jan. 24, assuming that the Office of Government Ethics gave her the all-clear by Jan. 20. So far, DeVos’ ethics paperwork hasn’t been cleared by that office.

Photo: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in January, 2017. --Carolyn Kaster/AP-File

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