From the “golden rule” to grizzly bears, a number of topics came up during the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, which was held on January 17 by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.
Ethics and Taxes
It’s a general rule that before committee hearings certain paperwork is submitted to the Senators for review, including a letter from the Office of Government Ethics, which vets nominees for any conflicts of interest.
“I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics. When President Obama entered the White House, Republicans insisted on having an ethics letter in hand before moving to a hearing,” Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) pointed out in her opening remarks. She also pointed out that Betsy DeVos hasn’t released three years of her tax returns, as she has been asked to do.
The “Golden Rule”
This “golden rule” was repeatedly mentioned during the confirmation hearing by Committee Chairman Senator Lamar Alexander, (R-TN) who himself served as Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. He decided that each Senator would get five minutes for questions, and that they would then be able to ask additional questions in writing.
A number of Senators felt that wasn’t enough time for the public to hear her responses or get to know her.
Senator Al Franken (D-MN) was upset to not get more time for follow up questions because “we want to know if this person that we … may entrust to be the Secretary of Education if she has the breadth and depth of knowledge that we would expect from someone who has that important job.”
Before getting to his questions, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said: “I think this is a real shame, this rush job, this inability to allow the public to see this debate; the imperative to get this hearing in before we have all the information. I think it really violates the best traditions of this committee and it suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny and I hope we would reconsider.”
But, Alexander didn’t listen, nor did he reconsider. It should also be said that he supports the DeVos nomination. During his opening remarks he said: “Betsy DeVos, in my opinion, is on our children’s side. She’s devoted her life to helping mainly low-income children have better choices of schools. Most of the criticism I’ve heard of her amounts to three things—one, she supports public charter schools, two she supports giving lower income parents more choices of schools for their children, and three, she’s used her considerable wealth and effectiveness to advance those ideas. I believe she is in the mainstream of public opinion and her critics are not.”
A number of Senators raised concerns about charitable contributions made by Betsy Devos and members of her family that they said are in conflict with values of equality. A few Senators asked about contributions to an organization called Focus on the Family, which Sen. Franken pointed out is known for supporting conversion therapy.
“Homosexual strugglers can and do change their sexual behavior and identity,” Sen. Franken read from the organization’s website, then asked DeVos if she still believes in conversion therapy.
“I’ve never believed in that… I fully embrace equality and I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students no matter their age should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination,” she responded.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) questioned her nomination. He asked DeVos how much her family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years; she said she didn’t know. Sanders estimates the number to be about $200 million.
“Do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has not made [so many] contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?” Sanders asked her.
“I do think that there would be that possibility,” DeVos responded. “I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice … for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) noted for the record that her nomination being linked to party contributions was not fair.
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) supports equal accountability for all schools that receive public funding, whether that school is public, public charter, or private. This seemed to be a tough topic for DeVos. While her supporters say she supports accountability and she also says she does—repeatedly—not all schools are equally accountable and she wouldn’t answer when questioned about whether they should be.
“What she supports is holding all schools accountable, whether they are traditional public schools or charter schools,” said Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) in his opening statements. “Mrs. DeVos is clearly not opposed to accountability, what she is opposed to is holding some schools accountable but not all schools. What she is opposed to is leaving children trapped in schools that we know are failing.”
Nothing is Free
One of the questions Sen. Sanders had for Betsy DeVos was if she would work with him to make public colleges and universities tuition free, making higher education more accessible.
“I think that’s an interesting idea, I think it’s great to consider and think about, but I think we also have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that’s truly free. Somebody’s going to pay for it,” DeVos responded.
Is She Qualified?
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was especially concerned with how qualified Betsy DeVos is, or is not, to perform the job of Secretary of Education.
“The Secretary of Education is essentially responsible for managing a trillion dollar student loan bank and distributing $30 billion in Pell grants to students each year,” Sen. Warren explained. “The financial futures of an entire generation of young people depend on your department getting that right. Do you have any direct experience running a bank?” DeVos said she does not, and Sen. Warren continued.
Sen. Warren determined through a barrage of questions that DeVos has not only never applied for a student loan, but none of her children ever needed to, and she has no personal experience with Pell grants.
Sen. Warren then turned her attention to waste, fraud and abuse and DeVos stumbled through answers, but Sen. Warren didn’t back down. While DeVos said she would ensure “that institutions which receive federal funds are actually serving their students well,” she wavered when Sen. Warren asked about the gainful employment rule, saying it would be reviewed.
“There are already rules in place to stop waste, fraud and abuse and I don’t understand how you can not be sure about not enforcing them. Swindlers and crooks are out there doing backflips when they hear an answer like this. If confirmed you will be the cop on the beat. If you can’t commit to use the tools that are already available to you in the Department of Education then I don’t see how you can be the Secretary of Education,” Sen. Warren said.
Betsy DeVos seemed confused by Sen. Franken’s questions about the proficiency versus growth debate as well. “With proficiency teachers ignore the kids at the top, who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom, who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency, so I’ve been an advocate of growth,” Sen. Franken explained. “But it surprises me that you don’t know this issue.” He ended up moving on because he only had five minutes to ask questions of the nominee.
Sen. Kaine questioned Betsy DeVos on the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and whether all schools receiving federal funding should be required to meet its guidelines. DeVos answered that it should be left to the states—twice—but IDEA is a federal law.
Guns and Grizzlies
Sen. Murphy asked DeVos if she thought guns have any place in or around schools, and she said that was something that should be left up to states. Murphy tried again: “You can’t definitively say today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
Betsy DeVos then referred to a conversation from earlier in the hearing with Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) about a school in Wapiti, Wyoming that has a fence around it to protect from wildlife. “I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos said, but going on to say that if he was asking about gun violence, her “heart bleeds” for anyone who has lost a family member due to gun violence.
The committee will meet again in executive session on January 24 to vote on the nomination.
Watch the full hearing: