On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held its confirmation hearing for Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education pick, Betsy DeVos. Committee chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) pushed ahead with the hearing even though DeVos had yet to clear review by the Office of Government Ethics. This set the stage for a contentious, at times overtly hostile showdown between Committee Republicans and Democrats. At the center of the showdown was wealthy conservative donor, philanthropist, and one-time chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, Betsy DeVos.
DeVos is best known for her strong advocacy of “school choice.” As a key architect of the Detroit Charter School System, she aligns closely with Donald Trump, who pledged $20 billion in federal funds to advance “school choice” during his presidential campaign.
DeVos outlined her position in her opening statement, arguing:
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child. And they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based, or any other combination.”
Given her connection to school choice and the charter school sector, many Democrats expressed concern that DeVos was not committed to the maintenance and improvement of America’s public schools. That said, Committee members and those in the educational community are likely already familiar with the position that both DeVos and Trump have taken on school choice. Thus, Senators used the confirmation hearing as an opportunity to learn more about the nominee’s position on a host of issues.
Partisan Bickering Ensues
Senators fired shots at one another from across the aisle, largely over the very nature of the hearing itself. In particular, Democrats challenged Chairman Alexander’s insistence that questioning be limited to a single round, in which each Senator was allotted only five minutes.
Many bristled at the limitations and some even insinuated that this strategy was intended to insulate DeVos from more intensive questioning. In particular, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said that five minutes of questions was a “meager” allowance. He observed that “this is a real shame, this rush job. … It suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny.”
If this approach was intended to protect the nominee, it failed. Indeed, Democrats seemed particularly incentivized to use their limited time to its fullest: what their questioning lacked in depth, it made up for in severity.
Republicans stood largely in the nominee’s corner, most particularly Alexander, who introduced her to the Committee with a ringing endorsement:
“Betsy DeVos, in my opinion, is on our children’s side. She’s devoted her life to helping mainly low-income children have access to better schools.”
Former conservative Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman was also on hand to offer his endorsement. The one-time vice-presidential nominee observed that “She doesn’t come from within the education establishment. But honestly, I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job … We need a change agent.”
Many prominent Committee Democrats begged to differ with this sentiment, demonstrating through numerous heated exchanges that her outsider status accounts for a startling lack of familiarity with certain issues germane to education.
Before we dig a little further into the confirmation’s key exchanges, a few takeaways: If you are a Democrat, you can’t be too thrilled with what you heard. If you’re a Republican, you’re pretty happy that there’s really nothing the Democrats can do to stop this confirmation. In spite of the clear discontent that Committee Democrats expressed with Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos will almost certainly be the nation’s next Secretary of Education.
Bear that in mind as you reflect on some of the most confrontational and revealing moments of the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing.
On Growth vs. Proficiency
Senator Al Franken (D-MN) was among the Committee’s fiercest interrogators. The Saturday Night Live alumnus asked DeVos how she felt about student assessments, and whether they should be used to measure “proficiency” or “growth.”
Here, Senator Franken referred to a key debate among educators and education policy-makers alike. For a tiny bit of background, former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative rewarded or deprived schools of federal funding based on the ability of their students to achieve a set level of “proficiency” on standardized assessments.
The Obama Administration regarded the proficiency standard as inherently punishing struggling schools and at-risk students—and consequently magnifying rather than healing fundamental inequalities in American education. Under Obama, assessments have focused instead on growth. Under this strategy, assessments are used to evaluate every school and district based on its own path to improvement, as opposed to its achievement of a unilateral standard. Wherever one falls on this debate, it is an issue of importance to the educational community.
Below is the brief exchange between Franken and DeVos on the subject::
DeVos: “I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”
Franken: “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency. So, in other words, the growth they are making isn’t growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard.”
DeVos: “Proficiency is when they reach a third grade-level of reading, etc.”
. . .
Franken: “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. And I’ve advocated growth as the chairman, and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency and ignore the kids on the bottom, who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency. I’ve been an advocate of growth. So, it surprises me that you don’t know this issue. I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions because this is a very important subject, education, our kids education. I think we’re selling our kids short by not being able to ask follow-up questions.”
On Student Loan Debt
Franken also pressed DeVos on her knowledge of student loan debt.
Franken: “In terms of throwing numbers around, you say that student debt has increased 1,000 percent?”
DeVos: “980 percent in eight years. That’s almost 1,000.”
Franken: “That’s just not so. It’s increased 118 percent in the past eight years. So, I’m just asking if you’re challenging my figures, I would ask that you get your figures straight on education policy. That’s why we want more questions, because we want to know if this person (DeVos) that we are entrusting—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.”
On Gun Control
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) confronted DeVos on gun control in schools. Murphy has been an outspoken advocate for gun control reform since 2012, when his state suffered the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Murphy: “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
DeVos: “I will support what the president-elect does.”
Pressed further, DeVos said: “I think that is best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question is…”
Murphy: “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
DeVos: “Well, well I would refer back to Senator Enzi and the school he was referring to in Wapiti, Wyoming, and that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
(Editors Note: Prepare yourself for a web-wide proliferation of timely grizzly bear memes.)
On Privatization of Education
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) took on the issue of public education funding, a subject about which the DeVos nomination has raised particular concern:
Murray: “Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?”
DeVos: “Senator, thanks for that question. I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students. And we acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. And I’m hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”
Murray: “I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education.”
DeVos: “I guess I wouldn’t characterize it in that way.”
Murray: “Well, okay.” (laughing)
On For-Profit Schools
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked DeVos how she would confront waste, fraud, and abuse in the for-profit education sector.
DeVos: “The individuals with whom I work in the department will ensure that federal monies are used properly and appropriately.”
Warren: “So, you’re going to subcontract making sure what happened with universities that cheat students doesn’t happen anymore?”
DeVos: “No, I didn’t say that.”
As Warren probed further on the subject, DeVos appeared stymied by the line of questioning. Warren then asked if DeVos would maintain the “gainful employment” initiative enacted by President Obama—which forgives student loan debt in instances where colleges are failing to meeting post-graduate employment benchmarks.
DeVos declined to make that commitment, telling Warren that she’d need to review the new regulation to determine whether or not it was “actually achieving what the intentions are.”
Warren: “I don’t understand about reviewing it. We talked about this in my office. … You know, swindlers and crooks are out there doing back flips when they hear an answer like this.”
On the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) took on the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that public schools provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education.” This year’s Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Kaine asked if DeVos believes that all schools receiving federal funding—public, charter, or private—should adhere to IDEA’s requirements:
DeVos: “I think they already are.”
Kaine: “But I’m asking you a should question. Whether they are or not, we’ll get into that later.”
DeVos: “I think that is a matter that is best left to the states.”
Kaine: “So some states might be good to kids with disabilities and other states might not be so good and, what then, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how kids are being treated?”
DeVos: “I think that’s an issue that’s best left to the states.”
Kaine: “What about the federal requirement? It’s a federal law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.”
DeVos diverged on the subject but Kaine declined to let her off the hook:
Kaine: “Just yes or no: I think all schools that receive federal funding — public, public charter, private — should be required to meet the conditions. Do you agree?”
DeVos: “I think that is certainly worth discussion.”
Kaine: “So you cannot yet agree with me.”
Later in the hearing, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) returned to the issue. She informed DeVos that IDEA is a federal civil rights law that must be followed. She then asked DeVos whether or not she still believed it was up to states to decide whether or not to adhere to this law.
DeVos: “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.”
Hassan: “So were you unaware when I just asked you about the IDEA that it was a federal law?”
DeVos: “I may have confused it.”
Hassan expressed concern that DeVos was unaware of the law’s federal status.
On Campus Sexual Assault
Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) raised the issue of campus sexual assault, which he characterized as an epidemic. He pressed DeVos to make a firm commitment to recent reforms under the Obama administration that seek more aggressive action in preventing and prosecuting sexual assault on college campuses.
DeVos said it would be “premature” to make a definitive statement on the issue.
“Assault in any form is never OK, I just want to be very clear on that. If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim … as well as those who are accused.”
Given the limited time available for questioning, Senator Casey waited until after the hearing to issue a public statement voicing his displeasure with her response:
“It is not ‘premature’ for a nominee to be Secretary of Education to commit to enforcing campus sexual assault laws. 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.”
On Possible Conflicts of Interest
Democratic firebrand and presidential primary contender, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) faced off with DeVos about her potential conflicts of interest, particularly given her personal wealth and her longstanding track record as a donor to Republican candidates and conservative causes.
Sanders: “Mrs. DeVos, there is a growing fear, I think, in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very, very wealthy billionaires control, to a significant degree, our economic and political life. Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?”
DeVos: “Senator, first of all thank you for that question. I again was pleased to meet you in your office last week. I wish I could give you that number. I don’t know.”
Sanders: “I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?”
DeVos: “Collectively? Between my entire family?”
Sanders: “Yeah, over the years.”
DeVos: “That’s possible.”
Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”
DeVos: “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost thirty years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”
If you enjoy parliamentary fireworks—and who doesn’t—you’ll love this hearing. We urge you to watch the full engagement on NPR next time you have a spare three-and-a-half hours at your disposal.