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Education secretary pick DeVos, deflects and sidesteps multiple questions at hearing



DeVos was asked about everything from long-standing
education debates to making public colleges tuition-free.

WASHINGTON — It was a sometimes contentious confirmation hearing for education secretary pick Betsy DeVos, who sidestepped several important issues bought up from Democrats.

Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee grilled the wealthy Republican donor on a range of issues from sexual assault to child care, students with disabilities and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Asked the differences between growth and proficiency in schools, something Minnesota Senator Al Franken said is a constant debate in education, DeVos had no answers. 

“Ms. DeVos repeatedly refused to answer questions, let alone offer specifics,” Franken wrote. “That was not what the American people needed to hear. They deserved to see her demonstrate that she understands and can successfully address the profoundly difficult challenges ordinary families face every day when it comes to education: things like making sure their kids are prepared for the 21st century economy, addressing student loan debt, and ensuring kids feel safe in school.”

Posted by U.S. Senator Al Franken on Tuesday, January 17, 2017

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.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked DeVos outright if she would have gotten the job had it not been for her family’s political contributions. “As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility,” she responded. “I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years.”

Sen. Sanders Questions Education Nominee Betsy DeVos

We should be investing in our kids’ child care and education, not giving the wealthy huge tax breaks. We need a Secretary of Education who actually supports public education.

Posted by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Asked by Sanders about her views on tuition-free public colleges and universities, DeVos said: “I think we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody is going to pay for it.”

She skirted Sanders’ question on whether she would support making child care free or much more affordable for low-income families as is the case in many countries around the world, saying only that she feels strongly about “parents having an opportunity for child care for their children.”

“But it’s not a question of opportunity,” Sanders fired back, raising his voice. “It’s a question of being able to afford it!”

As the hearing dragged on into its fourth hour, Democratic senators made repeated requests with Chairman Alexander to allow them to pose another round of questions to DeVos, but he refused, citing procedures at previous hearings.

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.”

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.

When asked about guns in schools, DeVos did have an interesting take. Connecticut Rep. Sen. Chris Murphy asked DeVos, “Do you think guns have any place in or around schools?”

DeVos first said that decision is “best left to locales and states to decide.”

When Murphy asked her again, DeVos said, “I will refer back to (Wyoming Republican) Senator (Mike) Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming … I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”

No confirmation on whether or not Wyoming schools have guns ready in case of “potential grizzlies.”

DeVos also dodged a question about whether she would rein in the department’s Office for Civil Rights’ work to protect students from campus sexual assault. DeVos said she would “be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled and with great sensitivity to those who are victims.”

Keeping with the theme, DeVos deflected questions by Virginia Dem. Sen. Tim Kaine on multiple questions that got somewhat awkward.

I worry about the effects of a leader who thinks ‘government sucks’ on the morale of teachers. Disappointed Betsy DeVos does not support equal accountability and IDEA for all schools getting tax dollars.

Posted by U.S. Senator Tim Kaine on Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, said she was “extremely disappointed” that DeVos had not finalized her financial and ethics disclosures ahead of the hearing. She also asked whether DeVos would divest herself of any family business enterprises that may represent a conflict of interest in her job, including one student loan refinancing company.

“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved,” DeVos said, not quite answering the question. “I will not be conflicted. Period.” 

Facing criticism from teachers unions that she is working against public education, DeVos told the committee that she will be “a strong advocate for great public schools.”

“But,” she added, “if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child – perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet – we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

Amid concerns that DeVos’ conservative religious views might make her a poor advocate for the rights of the LGBT community and other minorities, DeVos stressed that no students should face discrimination. Alexander read into the record a letter of support from the Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican organization pushing for LGBT rights.

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.

DeVos told the hearing late Tuesday that she never supported the idea and that “believes in the innate value of every single human being.”

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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