Blog: The Educated Reporter

For Trump Pick DeVos, Confirmation Hearing Is a Bear

Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for billionaire school advocate Betsy DeVos — President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education — was a doozy.

DeVos sought to present herself as ready to oversee the federal agency, but some of her remarks suggested a lack of familiarity with the federal laws governing the nation’s schools.

In her opening statement before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, DeVos said:

“If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. 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.”

DeVos also mentioned her mother was a public school teacher.

But as Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa and Alyson Klein noted, “those assurances didn’t seem to quell the anxieties of Democrats on the committee.” That included ranking member Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

“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.

Another Education Week piece listed six areas where DeVos’s positions still aren’t clear. Among them: Whether she would enforce the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind as the backbone of the nation’s education law, and the key funding mechanism for public schools.

Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, introduced DeVos at the hearing, calling her outsider status an asset to the job rather than a liability:

“She doesn’t come from within the education establishment. But honestly, I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job,” the former senator from Connecticut said. “We need a change agent.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was one of numerous Democrats to ask pointed questions of DeVos, including her position on how schools should be evaluated. DeVos seemed not to understand the definitions of using growth (how much a student gains in knowledge over a period time) to measure achievement rather than proficiency (how well a student does on a particular assessment).

In response to that exchange, Vox’s Libby Nelson wrote:

This wasn’t just a matter of mixing up some jargon. DeVos’s response, as well as her reactions to similar questions about the basics of federal education policy, suggested she knows little about what the department she hopes to lead actually does.

Additionally, DeVos fielded intense questioning on whether her school choice advocacy will put her at odds with the core work of the federal agency she oversees. From USA Today’s Greg Toppo:

Facing Democrats who questioned DeVos’ support of school choice and what it may mean for public schools, DeVos said she supports “any great school” – including public schools and those beyond what “the (public school) system thinks is best for kids, to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve.

“Not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. I’m hoping we can work together to find common ground,” DeVos said, rebuffing a request by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that she vow not to propose funding cuts for any public schools.

Back in DeVos’ home state, the Detroit Free Press put together a compilation of her most awkward moments. Among them: suggesting she would support allowing guns on school campuses because of the threat of … grizzly bears. While that response provoked some levity on Twitter, it’s not a laughing matter to many people — including the senator who posed the question: Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whose district is home to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

DeVos also struggled when asked about students with disabilities. DeVos didn’t seem to clearly understand where current federal law stands on that point, and said the decisions about special education services are best left up to states. (As Brian Rosenthal’s reporting for The Houston Chronicle has made abundantly clear, that hasn’t worked out so well in Texas.)

It’s worth noting what DeVos didn’t talk about — and in some cases wasn’t even asked about — during her hearing, which lasted more than three hours on Tuesday night. The Atlantic’s Emily DeRuy summed it up:

Noticeably absent from the hearing were substantive discussions of the Common Core standards, which Trump has lambasted; how DeVos would handle racial inequity and school segregation, which have been priorities of the Obama administration; and issues around standardized testing, accreditation, and for-profit schools. She offered little clarity around her views on higher education and early-childhood education, broadly.

There was some discussion of higher education issues during Tuesday’s hearing but, as with K-12, DeVos’ positions were generally short on specifics, says Inside Higher Ed’s Andrew Kreighbaum:

DeVos’s prepared remarks didn’t offer much insight into the approach she would take toward higher ed. She acknowledged the problem of high volumes of student loan debt but did not propose a solution. DeVos also added that career education programs should not be viewed as a “fallback” for students who don’t succeed in college but should instead be viewed as one of a number of “pathways” to postsecondary education.

There were a few exceptions, writes Eric Kelderman of The Chonicle of Higher Education:

Some of her clearest answers came in response to questions from U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, who asked about her commitment to paring higher-education regulations broadly and simplifying the form students must complete for access to federal aid, called the FAFSA.

“I don’t think we should make it any more difficult than necessary” for students to complete the forms, she said.

So what’s next? The committee must decide whether to send her nomination to the full Senate for a vote. That’s expected to happen next week.

But there’s another hurdle still to cross, as The Washingon Post reported: DeVos’ financial and ethics disclosures paperwork. The Office of Government Ethics, which must review all presidential nominees for conflicts of interest, “has not finished its review of DeVos’s vast wealth and financial investments.” Among the issues: DeVos’ family has made significant contributions to campaign war chests of many lawmakers. She told the Senate committee she wasn’t aware of the total amount, even when pressed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. From The Los Angeles Times:

When DeVos still didn’t offer a number, Sanders said he’d heard that the family collectively had contributed $200 million over the years.

“That’s possible,” she said.

Would DeVos have been chosen to be secretary of education without those $200 million in donations, Sanders asked?

DeVos said she thought she would have been.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the education committee, spoke admiringly of DeVos when he opened Tuesday’s hearing, but said the vote won’t happen until the ethics review is complete. And DeVos told the committee Tuesday that if the federal review turns up issues, she’ll resolve them.

“I will not be conflicted, period,” she said. “I commit that to you all.”