DeVos Withstands Pointed Questioning on Education

DeVos Withstands Pointed Questioning on Education
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Controversy erupted at Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearing Tuesday evening before she even had a chance to speak. 

As Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, laid out the rules for vetting Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, Democratic senators repeatedly challenged his decision not to allow multiple rounds of questioning. The Tennessee lawmaker insisted, however, that he was following committee precedent. Democrats also protested the timing of the hearing given that the Office of Government Ethics has yet to complete its review of DeVos's finances.

Alexander refused to give in and Democrats turned their ire towards the billionaire conservative activist, grilling DeVos for the next three hours about her personal finances and potential conflicts of interests as well as campus sexual assault policies, civil rights, and the impact of school choice on traditional public schools.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking member on the committee, targeted possible conflicts of interest relating to the nominee and her husband's past investments, particularly in education-related companies.

"Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved," DeVos promised. "I will not be conflicted. Period. I commit that to you all."

Sen. Bernie Sanders fired off a series of tough questions concerning free tuition, tax breaks for billionaires, and universal child care. But he particularly put DeVos on the spot when he asked, “Do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos responded that “there would be that possibility” given that she has dedicated almost 30 years of her life to helping students achieve better educational outcomes.

From there the questions moved to cultural issues. Sen. Al Franken pressed DeVos on her family's donations to Christian organizations and whether she supports conversion therapy, the practice that tries to turn gay people straight. "I have never believed in that," DeVos said. "I fully embrace equality and believe in the innate value of every single human being” and that all students “should be able to attend schools and be free of discrimination."

Another Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey, pushed DeVos on the issue of sexual assault and whether she would uphold the Obama administration's Title IX guidance as it relates to college campuses. DeVos declared forcefully that “assault in any form is never okay” but wouldn't commit to upholding the current administration's policies and said that the intent of the law should recognize “the rights of victims as well as those who are accused.”

While senators interrupted and openly criticized her, DeVos remained deferential and even-tempered. She used her time to argue that, if confirmed, she would be a “strong advocate for great public schools.” She also dodged a number of thorny questions and took some blows without fighting back. Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out that neither DeVos nor her children have ever taken out a student loan, leaving the Massachusetts liberal to wonder aloud how DeVos could be suited to lead the department in charge of federal student loans.

DeVos did take refuge in the fact that there was almost unanimous support for charter schools among committee members. The two parties differed on how charters should be funded and held accountable, but the level of agreement seemed to buoy DeVos throughout the hearing. Republicans tried to take advantage of it, repeatedly linking the nominee to popular, bipartisan charter school reforms. 

Regarding school choice, Alexander asked DeVos if she would use her power as education secretary to push a school choice program via regulations or mandates. She rejected that idea and insisted that school choice “is a state role and state decision.”

One Republican on the committee seemed to express reservations with DeVos. Sen. Lisa Murkowski voiced concerns about rural education and how DeVos's views on school choice might impact Alaska. However, barring any outstanding ethics problems or unexpected Republican defections, DeVos appears to be on the path to confirmation.

Christopher Beach is the editor of RealClearEducation.

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