Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, emerged from her confirmation hearings with Republicans praising her commitment to school choice and with Democrats voicing concerns over what they see as a lack of experience to ensure equity for students of all backgrounds and abilities.
During the hearings, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) did not back down as he repeatedly asked DeVos to address yes-or-no questions about a variety of education issues, including the Individuals with Disabilities Act–a key federal law that allocates federal funding to schools to ensure the needs of students with disabilities are met.
Kaine and DeVos sparred over the matter of whether all schools–public, public charter or private–should be required to meet IDEA requirements if they receive federal funding.
DeVos also raised Democrats’ eyebrows when she refused to give clear-cut answers about whether schools receiving taxpayer funds, including public schools, private schools or public charter schools, should adhere to the same and equal performance benchmarks.
“Do you not want to answer my question?” Kaine asked.
“I support accountability,” DeVos replied, but she stopped short of agreeing that all schools receiving taxpayer support should adhere to the same accountability.
(Next page: Strong reactions from both sides)
DeVos on Higher Education
Higher education did not receive as much attention as K-12 education during the hearing, but DeVos admitted that she does not have experience running a program similar to the federal student loan program.
She also stated, when asked, that she has never taken out a federal student loan for her own education or for that of her children.
DeVos hedged when asked about free public college education.
“Will you work with me and others to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through federal and state efforts?” asked Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“I think that is a really interesting idea and it’s really great to consider and think about. But we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that’s truly free. Somebody has got to pay for it,” she replied.
“Right now we have proposals in front of us to substantially lower tax breaks for billionaires in this country, while at the same time low-income kids can’t afford to college,” Sanders replied. “Do you think that makes sense?
After some back and forth, DeVos declared that “we can work together and we can work hard on making sure college or higher education in some form is affordable for all young people that want to pursue it.”
The hearing drew strong reactions from both political parties.
Republicans claim she will be a voice for school choice and will work to decrease the federal role in K-12 education.
“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,” said Jeb Bush, President and Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd). DeVos has ties to the organization.
“Betsy DeVos will take on the entrenched special interests in American education that have put the interests of adults ahead of school children for too long. Our experience in Florida proves that expanded school choice, coupled with strong accountability measures, delivers great results for kids. Betsy DeVos will work to shift power and money back to states and parents so innovation and reform can flourish in America.”
“Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side. She has spent her life fighting for public charter schools,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, in a video supporting the nomination.
Democrats have strongly opposed her nomination, noting that DeVos, who is strongly in favor of school choice, doesn’t come from public education, has never attended a public school and has not sent her children to public schools.
In a message urging support via the #StandWithBetsy hashtag on Twitter, an ExcelinEd statement noted that members “look forward to her bold leadership at the U.S. Department of Education and working with all of you to champion the right of all parents to choose the educational path that best ensures their children’s success.”
In a letter to the Senate HELP Committee, 38 groups expressed “strong concerns” with DeVos and her potential policies.
“While what we know about DeVos’ record thus far is deeply troubling, there remain many critical issues affecting students and schools on which no record exists,” according to the letter. “As such, we urge all members of the U.S. Senate HELP Committee to make their concerns about her nomination and possible confirmation for U.S. secretary of education known.”
In video and commentary posted to his Facebook page, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said DeVos “repeatedly refused to answer questions, let alone offer specifics. That was not what the American people needed to hear. They deserved to see her demonstrate that she understands and can successfully address the profoundly difficult challenges ordinary families face every day when it comes to education: things like making sure their kids are prepared for the 21st century economy, addressing student loan debt, and ensuring kids feel safe in school.”
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