Classroom Technology

Betsy DeVos Answers Questions to Key Democratic Concerns on School Choice

By Arianna Prothero — January 31, 2017 2 min read
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President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, continues to face strong opposition from Democrats over her education policy priorities— in particular, school choice.

Prior to the Senate education committee voting to approve DeVos’ nominationon Tuesday morning, DeVos responded to hundreds of follow-up questions from Democrats to clarify her views on education.

The ranking committee member, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., alone asked DeVos around 140 questions and made the answers public, as reported by Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog.

Several of those questions focused on school choice.

Before being catapulted into the public consciousness after Trump nominated her, DeVos had mostly worked behind the scenes as an influential philanthropic backer of school choice. The DeVos family, made billionaires by the family patriarch, Richard DeVos who founded the Amway Corporation, are also major donors to the Republican party.

Although DeVos answered questions on a range of issues, below is what the Politics K-12 blog reports DeVos’ wrote in response to Murray’s questions on charter schools, virtual schools, and vouchers.

Charter schools: DeVos has been criticized for her role in creating Michigan's charter sector. Some education advocates, including some school choice proponents, say the state doesn't allow for sufficient oversight of underperforming charter schools. DeVos told Murray it should be up to states and districts to craft their own charter laws. At the same time, she said, "I support high quality, accountability, autonomy, and transparency." DeVos did not commit to continuing to collect federal data that links charter schools to their management organizations. She said she would review that data collection. Virtual charters and distance learning: DeVos was asked for her views on virtual charters. Murray cited an Education Week investigation that uncovered big problems in the sector. DeVos reiterated her support for the schools, saying they are a good option for kids in rural areas. Another Education Week series found that rural schools often lack the broadband capability to offer virtual courses. On vouchers: Murray noted vouchers often don't cover full tuition at a private school ... DeVos said she realized this, but noted that Pell Grants for low-income students—a bipartisan priority—also don't often cover the full cost of college tuition. (DeVos did not mention that college students can take out federally subsidized loans to make up the difference.) Other tidbits: DeVos said she has not had a financial interest in K12, Inc., a [company that operates virtual charter schools] whose questionable lobbying practices were part of Education Week's investigation, in over a decade.

(To read what DeVos had to say on other issues, from immigration to early-childhood education, check out this story from the Politics K-12 blog.)

DeVos’ nomination was approved Tuesday along party lines by the Senate education committee. Her confirmation now moves to the full Senate.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, said that opposing DeVos’ nomination on the basis of her support for vouchers and school choice was a “pretty awful reason.”

However, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said during the committee’s meeting that Democratic opposition to DeVos was not about charter schools or school choice, but rather concerns over DeVos’ support of for-profit charter school operators and virtual schools.

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Photo: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrived with former Sen. Joe Lieberman, right, before testifying at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.