President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for education secretary went before a Senate committee on Tuesday, where she faced tough questions from Democrats over her efforts to expand charter schools, her family’s political influence, and her positions on guns and sexual assault on campuses.
Betsy DeVos, a billionaire from one of Michigan’s most powerful Republican families, has spent years funding “school choice” efforts in her home state and around the country. Public education advocates and teacher unions have described her as a radical choice to be the face of federal education policy.
DeVos’ vast wealth figured prominently in the hearing. Her family, which made its fortune through Amway and is worth an estimated $5 billion, has been a major funder of charter school expansion, Republican candidacies and efforts to weaken labor unions. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked DeVos if she would have found herself there Tuesday if she wasn’t so rich.
“If you were not a multibillionaire … do you think that you would be sitting here today?” Sanders asked.
“I do think there would be that possibility,” DeVos responded. “I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned DeVos about her qualifications to oversee student loans and distribute Pell grants. She asked DeVos if she or any of her children had ever had to take out a student loan to help pay for college.
“They have been fortunate not to,” DeVos noted.
Democrats said they were angry that they had not received a letter from the Office of Government Ethics saying it had completed a review of DeVos’ potential conflicts of interest. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) also said that DeVos had not complied with Democrats’ request to provide her last three years’ worth of tax returns in order to know where education policy may overlap with her family’s finances.
“I’m going to continue pushing for robust scrutiny of every one of these nominees,” Murray said. “I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics.” Under Obama, she said, “Republicans insisted on having an ethics letter in hand.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the Republican chairman of the Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions, told senators that a vote on DeVos’ confirmation would not occur before a letter had been made public.
Several Democrats also griped to Alexander that they were being allotted five minutes apiece to quiz DeVos without the potential for follow-up questions. They characterized that as a break from the norm and an effort to rush Trump’s nominees through the Senate without adequate scrutiny.
“I think we’re selling our kids short,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) told Alexander.
“I think this is a real shame, this rush job,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.).
Progressive Democrats have raised concerns not only about DeVos’ funding of charter efforts, but also her lack of experience in education. DeVos has never been a teacher or a school administrator, though she said Tuesday that she’d volunteered as a tutor at schools in Grand Rapids.
Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut, showed up at the hearing in an effort to allay those concerns and give DeVos some bipartisan credibility. Lieberman, who, like many left-leaning centrists, has supported the charter school movement, serves on the board of DeVos’ education reform group, American Federation for Children.
“Her nomination is naturally controversial. She has directly challenged the education establishment,” Lieberman said. “[But] in all my work for her, I have never heard Betsy speak against our public school system.”
At one point, DeVos didn’t seem familiar with federal law as it relates to students with disabilities. She said deference should be given to states in deciding whether schools meet special education requirements, prompting Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) to ask if she understood there was a federal civil rights law in place.
Plenty of Democrats wondered whether DeVos would try to undermine traditional public education and siphon money toward charter schools and private schools. (In 2001, DeVos and her husband, Dick, told a gathering of Christian philanthropists that they use their education donations in part to promote a conservative Christian worldview among kids.)
Murray said she wanted a “yes or no” answer from DeVos on a simple question: “Will you commit that you will not work to privatize, or cut funding” for public schools?
“I look forward, if confirmed, to [addressing] the needs of all students and parents,” DeVos responded. “I’m hopeful that we can work together and find common ground … and solve those issues.”
“I take that as not being willing to commit to not cutting funding,” Murray said.
“I wouldn’t characterize it in that way,” DeVos replied.
Alexander couched the controversy surrounding DeVos as a proxy fight over charter schools. Alexander said DeVos “deserves credit” for “using her wealth” to influence education policy. “Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side,” Alexander said. “I believe she is in the mainstream of public opinion, and her critics are not.”
One of the most tense exchanges came over the issue of gun violence. Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, asked DeVos if guns “have any place in or around schools.” Murphy’s state was home to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown in 2012.
DeVos said such questions should be left to states and localities.
“You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?” Murphy followed.
DeVos, referring to earlier comments from Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming, said that some schools out West might need protection from bears. “I would imagine there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said.
Murphy said he “looked forward” to her discussing the issue in Connecticut sometime.
As expected, Democrats also quizzed DeVos on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Under Obama, the Education Department has launched scores of investigations into how college campuses have handled sexual assault allegations, arguing that such attacks and the response to them are a civil rights issue.
Some advocates of those policies are wondering if the Trump administration would scrap them. Democrats even had victims of sexual assault seated in the audience to underscore the issue.
DeVos likely did not quell their fears Tuesday.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) asked if she was willing to pledge to uphold Obama’s reforms related to sexual assault on college campuses. DeVos said it would be “premature” to make any such promises. When Murray pressed her along the same lines as Casey, she avoided answering.
“If confirmed, I commit that I will be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled, with great sensitivity to those who are victims, and considering perpetrators as well,” DeVos said.