DeVos grilled at senate hearing

The Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, nominee to head the Department of Education, allowed DeVos to express her passion for school choice and respond to criticism relating to conflicts of interest. But at times the hearing revealed gaps in her knowledge of the field of education.

DeVos’s hearing, which was before the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, began at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

Republicans spent much of their questioning time — five minutes allotted to each senator — building a case for DeVos’s confirmation, praising her efforts to create more options for school choice and confirming with DeVos that she would return educational policy decisions to state and local control.

Throughout the hearing, DeVos had little time to speak herself besides in an opening statement. Republican senators asked questions that could often be answered with a simple, “I look forward to working with you on this issue.”

Democratic senators, in contrast to the Republicans, felt the urgency of the five-minute question limit and pressed DeVos to explain her views on issues such as the privatization of public education, campus sexual assault, the high rates of failure in Michigan charter schools and how DeVos would ensure that federal civil rights laws be upheld in schools receiving taxpayer money through a voucher program.

In DeVos’s opening statement, she framed school choice as the best way to approach the “diversity” of children’s needs. She decried the “one-size-fits-all” model of public education and emphasized a return to local control, saying local communities must be “freed from burdensome regulations from Washington.”

Despite her stated passion for the unique needs of individual children, however, she deflected questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures that public schools provide all the services necessary for children with disabilities without burdening the family with the cost.

DeVos said that states should decide whether or not they will enforce IDEA. When Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) pointed out that the IDEA is federal law, making it DeVos’s responsibility as potential head of the department to enforce it, DeVos said she “may have confused it.” Hassan, who has a disabled son, urged DeVos to educate herself about this civil rights policy.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), a charter school advocate like DeVos, asked, “What have you learned about the failures of the Detroit public and charter schools that has informed [sic] your decision making as the secretary of education? What went wrong there that is going to go right as a result of your philosophy on how we ought to move the country forward?”

DeVos’s answer: “Actually I believe there is a lot that has gone right in Detroit and in Michigan in regard to charter schools […] The idea that there isn’t accountability is ‘false news.’”

Sen. Franken (D-Minnesota) asked DeVos to take a side in a key educational debate: whether to assess students by measures of proficiency or measures of growth. DeVos answered, “I would correlate proficiency to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”

Franken immediately pointed out, “That’s growth. That’s not proficiency. The growth they are making is growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard.”

Franken gave DeVos several more opportunities to answer the question about where she stands on the debate between growth and proficiency, during which DeVos said she was merely trying to clarify what the question was.

Franken, clearly incensed, said, “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years […] I was kind of surprised, well, not that surprised, that you don’t know this issue.”

Several of the Democratic senators also complained that DeVos’s ethics paperwork hadn’t yet arrived and called for a second hearing in which they could discuss that paperwork. Chairman Alexander denied this, as well as calls for a second round of questions, maintaining that the committee must follow “the golden rule” and treat this candidate as the committee did President Obama’s nominees for secretary of education.

Other senators questioned this claim of precedent since the hearings for other departments’ secretaries, both this year and in the past, have contained either multiple rounds of questioning or multiple hearings.

DeVos, for her part, maintained that she is “a strong supporter of public education.” She defended herself against criticism of her and her family members’ donations to groups that hold anti-LGBT views, stating, “I fully embrace equality and I believe in the value of every human being.” In response to questions about potential conflicts of interest, she stated categorically that she would divest herself of any interests that the Office of Government Ethics deems to be a conflict.

She added that she, like Trump, will take a salary of $1, just enough “to make me official” as an employee of the government, and that she will forgo a tax loophole that would allow her to save hundreds of thousands of dollars while serving on the Cabinet.

DeVos advocates for scaling back the role of the department she hopes to lead. “It won’t be a federal agency that makes students succeed,” she said, but rather the choices of parents to do what is best for their children. “For me, it’s simple. I trust parents and I believe in our children.”

The committee is scheduled to vote on DeVos next Tuesday, Jan. 24.