5 Things To Look For In Betsy DeVos' Confirmation Hearing

There hasn't been a more controversial pick for secretary of education, arguably, in recent memory than Donald Trump's choice of Betsy DeVos. The Senate confirmation hearings for the billionaire Republican fundraiser and activist from Michigan start today.

DeVos is a champion of vouchers and expanding charter schools in a broader push for greater school choice — closely aligned with the views of the president-elect.

Her hearing was pushed back nearly a week because of Democrats' concerns over her "extensive financial entanglements and potential conflicts of interest," as Sen. Patty Murray of Washington put it. She's the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, which will conduct the hearing.

Here are five areas of questioning that are likely to come up:

1. Money

DeVos and her family have given more than a million dollars to sitting Republican senators, according to Federal Election Commission reports, as well as some $10 million more to superPACs and party committees.

That has prompted numerous left-leaning groups, including End Citizens United, to call for some senators to recuse themselves on a DeVos confirmation vote.

Given that DeVos once said she expects a return on investment for contributions, expect Democrats to challenge her on how the DeVos family has used its billions to support ballot measures, organizations, causes and politicians in Michigan, as well as some of the elected officials who'll be sitting in front of her.

2. ESSA

Expect tough questions on President-elect Trump's call for redirecting some $20 billion in federal aid to school choice. Trump has yet to put any meat on the bones of that idea. DeVos will certainly be asked whether that idea might mean redirecting money from federal Title I programs for the poor and disadvantaged. Or whether the new administration will seek to reopen the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed with rare bipartisan support in 2015.

Supporters, however, say DeVos has the leadership and vision to radically shake up the federal education bureaucracy, foster change and further return power to the states.

"Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children," is how Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., put it. He's the former education secretary who chairs the committee. "As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities."

3. School choice

Even some proponents of expanding choice options are voicing fears that DeVos favors an unbridled approach to choice, with too little oversight and accountability.

Michigan has one of the least-regulated charter programs in the country and critics point to Detroit's troubles as one outcome of that. The state also has a high proportion of charter schools run by for-profit organizations. That's thanks, in part, to the advocacy and funding by DeVos, her family and the organizations they've supported.

Sen. Murray put it this way in a release, after meeting with DeVos earlier this month: "I continue to have serious concerns about her long record of working to privatize and defund public education, expand taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, and block accountability for charter schools, including for-profit charter schools."

GOP senators on the committee, meanwhile, seem thrilled that a strong advocate of greater school choice is before them. "Looking forward to working with her," Kentucky's Rand Paul tweeted after DeVos was nominated.

4. Vouchers

Choice critics also worry that DeVos will push the federal government toward vouchers for private schools, a policy opponents say has amounted to a triumph "of ideology over evidence."

"If confirmed, would you use your position as Secretary of Education to promote the expansion of private school voucher programs in public education?" Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts asked in a 16-page letter listing more than 40 issues and questions she plans to bring up.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are elated that they have a nominee who they believe will stand up to teachers unions they see as major impediments to choice and change.

5. Higher ed

Where does DeVos stand on key higher ed issues of access, debt, affordability and accountability that got lots of attention during the presidential race?

"There's not much to draw on there," says Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success.

During the campaign, Trump did tell supporters at a rally, "If the federal government is going to subsidize student loans, it has a right to expect that colleges work hard to control costs and invest their resources in their students. If colleges refuse to take this responsibility seriously, they will be held accountable."

Asher hopes nominee DeVos voices support for continued tough oversight of for-profit colleges, something the Obama administration prioritized. "Making sure that students including veterans and service members should be protected from waste, fraud and abuse plays directly into college affordability," Asher says.

As the Century Foundation recently pointed out, Republicans have a long track record of standing up for the interests of students and taxpayers when it comes to higher education.

DeVos is likely to get questions on one of the only higher ed proposals the Trump campaign outlined during the race: an income-driven repayment plan for federal student loans that caps a borrower's payment at no more than 12.5 percent of his or her monthly income. Remaining debt after 15 years of payments would be forgiven under Trump's plan.

Sen. Alexander says that in higher ed, too, he's hoping DeVos will reduce bureaucracy and help "clear out the jungle of red tape that makes more difficult for students to obtain financial aid."

Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for education secretary, faces tough questions as her Senate confirmation hearings begin. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc./Getty Images


Trump education pick DeVos promotes school choice at confirmation hearing

Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos voiced strong support for public school alternatives at her confirmation hearing Tuesday, telling senators that "parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning fits the needs of every child."

DeVos told the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committe that she would be "a strong advocate for great public schools" if confirmed, but added that "if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child ... we should support a parent's right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative."

DeVos, 59, also said she will seek to address rising higher education costs and massive student debt, but also advance trade and vocational schools as well as community colleges because "craftsmanship is not a fallback — but a noble pursuit."

President-elect Donald Trump's nomination of DeVos to lead the Department of Education was harshly criticized by teacher's unions, who have claimed that DeVos wants to undermine the public education system, which provides instruction to more than 90 percent of the country's students.

In his opening statement, committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., himself a former secretary of education, said DeVos is "on our children's side."

"I believe she is in the mainstream of public opinion, and her critics are not," said Alexander. That praise was echoed by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who introduced DeVos to the committee by calling her "a champion of education, and specifically a champion of education for poor kids."

Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman also appeared before his former colleagues to introduce DeVos.

"We just can't accept the status quo in education anymore," Lieberman said. "We need a change agent and an education reformer to be education secretary ... and that is exactly the kind of education secretary I believe Betsy DeVos can and will be."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's ranking member, expressed concern that lawmakers had not received an ethics review for the nominee.

"I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing without receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Goverment Ethics," Murray said.

DeVos, whose husband is the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has for decades used the family’s influence and wealth in home-state Michigan to advocate for charter schools and promote conservative religious values. Critics of DeVos have expressed concerns about her financial contributions and possible conflicts of interest.

Murray, in her opening statement, also told DeVos that federal policy should be focused on strengthening public schools, "and certainly not toward diverting taxpayer dollars to fund vouchers that don't work for unaccountable private schools."

DeVos is expected to get enough votes in the committee and before the full Senate to be confirmed, considering she needs only a simple majority, with Republicans having 52 senators and Democrats having 48.

In a letter addressed to the committee, 38 prominent education groups and teachers' organizations expressed concern that DeVos' track record bodes ill for public education.
"Over the course of her career as a major campaign contributor, soft-money donor and lobbyist, DeVos has used her considerable wealth to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students," the letter said.
LGBT groups also have protested Trump's choice of DeVos, saying she has funded conservative religious groups that promote what they consider to be traditional family values, including one organization that supports conversion therapy -- counseling of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.
In an apparent response to that criticism, DeVos said in her statement, "Every child in America deserves to be in a safe environment that is free from discrimination."
DeVos supporters, meanwhile, applauded her nomination. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, said that American public education "is in deep crisis," with 35 countries outranking American schools in math and 20 in reading.
"I believe Betsy DeVos has the talent, commitment and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools and deliver the promise of opportunity that excellent education provides, and I support her nomination as U.S. secretary of education," Moskowitz said in a statement.

Murray has also garnered strong backing from two dozen state governors, as well as another former education secretary, William Bennett.

It’s time we take a major turn in American education,” Bennett told Fox News Channel’s “Happening Now” on Tuesday. “Betsy DeVos represents a change. She is experienced in the field with children from all over the country. … She understands what the problems with education are.”


Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing

Republican donor and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos says a one size-fits-all model of learning doesn’t work and that she would promote charter, magnet, religious and other alternatives to public schools, if confirmed education secretary.

But facing scathing criticism from teachers unions, who say she is seeking to destroy public education, DeVos also promised to be a “strong advocate for great public schools,” which provide instruction to more than 90 percent of the country’s students.

“Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children?” DeVos said in remarks released by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ahead of Tuesday’s confirmation hearing. “I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children.”

DeVos, 59, also said she will seek to address rising higher education costs and massive student debt, but also advance trade and vocational schools as well as community colleges because “craftsmanship is not a fallback — but a noble pursuit.”

Another priority for DeVos will be weakening “burdensome” federal regulations and giving local communities greater control over education policies.

“President-elect Trump and I know it won’t be Washington, D.C. that unlocks our nation’s potential, nor a bigger bureaucracy, tougher mandates or a federal agency,” DeVos said. “The answer is local control and listening to parents, students and teachers.”

DeVos, the wife of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has spent more than two decades advocating for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, as well as promoting conservative religious values.

DeVos’ candidacy has been met with fierce opposition for labor unions, Democrats and civil rights groups.

She and her family have donated millions of dollars to Republican politicians and groups over the years, including campaign contributions to several committee members. And DeVos has not finalized her financial and ethics disclosures ahead of the hearing, prompting criticism from Democrats.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, top Democrat on the committee said in a statement Tuesday that she wants DeVos to answer questions about her “extensive financial entanglements and potential conflicts of interest” and also to provide additional information about her finances, calling her disclosures incomplete. Murray lamented that DeVos has spent her career and wealth “fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools.”

In a letter addressed to the committee, 38 prominent education groups and teachers’ organizations expressed concern that DeVos’ track record bodes ill for public education.

“Over the course of her career as a major campaign contributor, soft-money donor, and lobbyist, DeVos has used her considerable wealth to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students,” the letter said.

President-elect Donald Trump has named Betsy DeVos as his choice for education secretary. DeVos, who has never worked in public education, is a prominent advocate of charter schools and school vouchers. What does this pick say about Donald Trump’s education agenda? John Yang discusses the appointment with Education Week’s Alyson Klein.

LGBT groups also have protested Trump’s choice of DeVos, saying she has funded conservative religious groups that promote traditional family values, including one organization that supports conversion therapy — counseling of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.

In an apparent response to that criticism, DeVos said in her statement, “Every child in America deserves to be in a safe environment that is free from discrimination.”

DeVos supporters, meanwhile, applauded her nomination. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, said that American public education “is in deep crisis,” with 35 countries outranking American schools in math and 20 in reading.

“I believe Betsy DeVos has the talent, commitment, and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools and deliver the promise of opportunity that excellent education provides, and I support her nomination as U.S. Secretary of Education,” Moskowitz said in a statement.

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