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Ten Questions Senators Could Ask Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos

By Andrew Ujifusa & Alyson Klein — January 10, 2017 5 min read
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Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, will be on the hot seat next Tuesday, Jan. 17. She’ll be taking questions from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at her confirmation hearing.

For the most part, past confirmation hearings haven’t been particularly fiery. But what are some tough questions senators could ask DeVos? We’ve got five possibilities in this video:

Want more? Here’s some additional detail, plus five more potential queries.

1. Organizations you’ve run have been big champions of school choice at the state level. Should the federal government require states to offer students options like charters and vouchers?

Background: It’s unclear how the Trump administration sees the federal role in championing school choice. Trump pitched a $20 billion school choice proposal on the campaign trail. But would states be required to have federal dollars follow kids to the schools of their choice, including private schools? And some conservatives don’t like the idea of having Washington force choice programs on states.

2. Your potential new boss, President-elect Trump, has said he want to get rid of Common Core State Standards. Should Washington be able to force states to ditch the common core?

Background: By our calculation, 36 states and the District of Columbia are still officially using the Common Core State Standards. And the Every Student Succeeds Act bars the U.S. Secretary of Education from dictating or incentivizing which standards states use or do not use. As with the first question, there’s potential tension between a policy goal and whether Washington should get heavily involved in meeting it.

3. All Children Matter, a school choice advocacy organization you led, reportedly owes Ohio a $5.3 million election-related fine. Has that fine been paid, and if not, why?

Background: The outstanding fine relates to how All Children Matter broke the campaign contribution limit in the Buckeye State in 2008. Several Democratic senators have told DeVos that the fine must be paid. A former spokesman for DeVos has countered that the nominee isn’t personally liable for the amount, and that the fine itself is no longer relevant.

4. You have called traditional public education a “monopoly” and a “dead end.” In your view, is offering more choice the only way to improve those schools?

Background: DeVos made those comments in a 2015 speech at South by Southwest, a series of festivals and conferences about various issues. Here’s a bit more context for those remarks: “We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly. It’s a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it.”

5. Civil rights groups have expressed serious concern about your track record. What should the federal role be in protecting students’ civil rights, including the rights of LGBT students?

Background: A coalition of civil rights advocates have voiced worries about DeVos’ connections to groups that oppose LGBT rights and for the remarks made about immigrant and other students by her potential boss, Trump. But we don’t know a huge amount about DeVos’ view of how government should be used to protect the rights of various student groups. She has said school choice supporters fight for the kids who “don’t fit in.”

6. Can you describe your approach to school accountability? How aggressive should federal and state governments be in ensuring that students meet certain benchmarks, and that struggling schools, and struggling charter schools in particular, are improved?

Background: DeVos has supported an A-F grading system for school accountability, which is used in some states, but is also highly controversial. (Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states can use such a system if they want, but don’t have to.) Her vigorous support for charter schools in Michigan, and her approach to charter oversight, could also get a lot of scrutiny during the hearing.

Last week, Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, said DeVos indicated her support for the A-PLUS Act, which would have allowed states to opt out of federal accountability mandates. In 2015, the A-PLUS Act was introduced as an amendment to the legislation that became ESSA, but it was ultimately not included. But based on Daines’ comments, DeVos could be asked about it at her hearing, especially since Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, criticized the A-PLUS Act during debate over the law.

7. One of biggest tasks ahead for this Congress is overhauling the Higher Education Act. Do you believe the higher education should be held more accountable for various student outcomes? And what changes do you think are necessary to the student-loan system?

Background: Higher education could be of particular interest to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee. In fact, he used the news of DeVos’ nomination in November to express excitement about reauthorizing HEA in the near future. But DeVos doesn’t have experience dealing with higher education issues in depth.

8. How would you and your family’s approach to political donations change if you become education secretary? And if someone took away your checkbook tomorrow, what strategies would you use to push changes in education?

Background: DeVos and her family have a very long history of donating significant money to political candidates and causes, almost exclusively Republican ones. Five senators on the Senate education committee, in fact, have gotten money from DeVos directly.

9. President Barack Obama was very active in various education policy areas during his administration. Can you name one or two Obama initiatives or approaches related to schools that you support, and if so, your reasons why?

Background: On a general level, but in different ways, both the Obama administration and DeVos have demonstrated significant support for charter schools. And the Foundation for Excellence in Education, where DeVos sat on the board, supports teacher evaluations based partially on test scores, just like Obama’s Education Department has.

10. How would you expect a broad school choice program to work in the rural districts that helped President-elect Donald Trump win the White House?

Background: Last month, we looked at how tricky it might be for a massive school choice plan to work well in rural areas. Just 7.5 percent of charter school students, for example, live in rural areas. Could DeVos and Trump increase that number. or significantly grow the total rural enrollment in charters? It can be tough for kids in rural areas just to find transportation to private schools, and at least one other option, virtual education, has its own serious issues.