Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, was the first nominee to have a Senate hearing without completing an ethics review on how she planned to avoid conflicts of interest. DeVos, a billionaire who has donated millions to Republican candidates and holds a host of investments, including in companies that influence federal education policy, has no experience in the education sector, has never attended a public school or sent her children to public schools and has never taken out a student loan. These facts did not escape Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts).
“So you have no personal experience with college financial aid?” Warren asked.
DeVos responded by touting a “market-oriented” vision of education policy, such as giving taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. Vouchers and charter schools, she argued, were a way of offering poor parents the sort of education options that wealthy parents can afford. “We saw the struggles and sacrifices many of these families faced when trying to choose the best educational option for their children,” she said of a visit she and her husband, an heir to the Amway fortune, made to a Christian school in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also credited the visit with having a significant impact on her career as an advocate for school choice: “For me, this was not just an issue of public policy but of national injustice.” (Democrats noted, however, that research has demonstrated that this strategy has done comparatively little to boost achievement among poorer students.)
Many of Donald Trump’s supporters live in predominantly rural areas, the committee pointed out, and providing school choice would prove a challenge in low-density areas where there aren’t enough “consumers” to create the educational market of charter schools and magnet schools which DeVos envisions. DeVos suggested “distance learning,” or online courses, could bridge that gap. (Both DeVos and her husband have owned shares in K12 Inc. The for-profit company runs online charter schools.)
Nor did DeVos answer Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) directly when Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked if she “will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education.” DeVos backtracked, saying that “not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them” and that she would work to find “common ground” with parents.
While Republicans lauded DeVos for her work as a school choice advocate, Democrats demanded she release three years of tax returns and more detailed ethical disclosures. Many of DeVos’ responses, they said, showed that she would be unprepared for the job.
For example, when asked by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) whether she would commit to enforce the current law on sexual assault contained in Title IX, DeVos said to do so would be “premature.” Casey called her response “deeply troubling” in a post on his official Facebook page. “It is not “premature” for a nominee to be Secretary of Education to commit to enforcing campus sexual assault laws…,” he wrote. “We’ve come too far and have too far to go on campus sexual assaults to go back to the days of zero accountability. A sexual assault is the ultimate betrayal and the students of our nation deserve a Secretary of Education who will stand up for them, not one unwilling to commit to enforcing basic campus sexual assault protections.”
DeVos also pushed back when Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) challenged her to work with him on his plan to make public colleges tuition-free. She said she would commit to “affordability,” but stressed, “We have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody will pay for it.” By contrast, DeVos told Sen. Elizabeth Warren that the Trump administration expects to overturn “gainful employment” regulations enforced by President Barack Obama which shut down hundreds of for-profit colleges that relied on federal student loans, but whose graduates failed to find steady employment. “We will review that rule,” she said.
When Sanders asked DeVos how she would help make childcare more affordable to single mothers earning $40,000 a year, DeVos’ inexperience showed: She would not discuss childcare. “I would look forward to working with you,” she said, “to ensure that young mom’s child will have a great opportunity for a great education in our future.” She made no mention of the Trump administration’s childcare proposal,
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