Trump education pick DeVos promotes school choice at confirmation hearing
Jan 17, 2017
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 onetime 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.
Murray 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.” She asked DeVos point-blank to pledge that she would not seek to privatize public schools or take money away from them.
DeVos, whose husband is the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has for decades used the family’s influence and wealth in her home state of 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.
The nominee attempted to assuage those concerns during the question-and answer period, pledging that she “will not be conflicted. Period.” DeVos also said that she will take a government salary of $1 if confirmed.
Asked outright by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., if she got the job because of her family’s political contributions, DeVos said: “As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility. I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years.”
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 opportunities 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!”
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.
DeVos repeatedly disavowed any support for conversion therapy Tuesday, saying in her opening statement that “every child in America deserves to be in a safe environment that is free from discrimination.”
Under questioning from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., DeVos said that “I have never believed in” conversion therapy and “I believe 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.
DeVos 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Would DeVos take on unions as Education Secretary?
LIVE STREAM: Betsy DeVos Senate Confirmation Hearing for Secretary of Education
Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing Education Secretary Nominee Donald Trump 1/17/17
Unions Bankrolling School Choice, DeVos Opposition
The union thugs are afraid their monopoly will get broken up.
Parents should have the option of getting out of the failing public school system.
Three of the groups challenging the reform agenda of President-elect Donald Trump and his education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos received more than $2.6 million from teachers unions and their allies, according to federal labor filings.
DeVos, a pioneer in the school choice and charter school movements over the last two decades, has received vocal opposition from Democrats and some of the country’s most powerful unions. The National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and AFL-CIO, which serves as an umbrella group for dozens of unions including the AFT, have all called on the Senate to reject the nomination.
They have also pumped millions of dollars into think tanks and activist groups that have supplied Democrats with intellectual ammunition to oppose her.
DeVos, the head of the American Federation for Children, has come under scrutiny from a number of liberal groups and media outlets, along with unions. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Center for American Progress (CAP) have each released reports critical of charter schools since President-elect Donald Trump announced the nomination in November.
EPI released a study on Nov. 30 blaming the rise of charter schools for creating “inefficiencies and redundancies within district boundaries, from the organization and delivery of educational programs to student transportation, increasing the likelihood of budgetary stress on the system as a whole, and the host government in particular.”
The report, written by Rutgers University Prof. Bruce Baker, argued that giving students the ability to enroll in schools outside of their low-performing district school raised transportation costs, increased congestion, and diverted money away from “unified education systems.” The report has also been used to criticize DeVos‘ approach to education.
EPI has received nearly $1.7 million from the NEA, AFT, and AFL-CIO since 2014, according to federal labor filings. The think tank, which describes itself as non-partisan, received more than $680,000 in 2015 alone from the three unions, and AFL-CIO footed the bill for catering costs at a January reception for the group that year. Those expenses were classified as “membership dues” and “support for economic policy research” on the Labor Department forms.
EPI did not include a disclosure in the report or its press release, though it does provide a list of donors on its website. Unions made 27 percent of all contributions between 2010 and 2014.
The Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, has also been at the forefront over DeVos’ confirmation battle. Its lobbyists and officials have been quoted in numerous media outlets criticizing Trump’s decision as a “pay-to-play nomination.” It released an analysis on Thursday of her family’s political donations to Republican lawmakers on Thursday, saying that they constituted a “conflict of interest.”
The analysis did not disclose that CAP and its advocacy arm CAP Action Fund has received about $800,000 in contributions and grants from the NEA, AFT, and AFL-CIO since 2014. Labor unions have reported a range of purposes for the expenses to the group, including “member education costs,” contribution,” and “natl partnership grant.” CAP did not respond to request for comment about those donations.
The Partnership for Working Families has also gotten involved in the fight against DeVos through its In the Public Interest project. The group has helped organize activists online to oppose her nomination, directing liberals to networking avenues to contact lawmakers and local media outlets.
“Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, wants to steer public money to charter schools, online learning, and voucher programs. But those of us who believe all kids deserve a quality education are gearing up for a fight,” In the Public Interest said in an online fundraising appeal.
The Partnership for Working Families received more than $135,000 from AFL-CIO in 2015 and 2016, according to the union’s Labor Department filings. The payments were made to “support research/devlpmnt strategy on raising wages” and “support [the] Power for Working Families” campaign.” Neither the Partnership, nor In the Public Interest responded to request for comment.
Trump transition team expected to meet resistance to DeVos’ nomination. Phillip Stutts, who worked for the Department of Education under President George W. Bush before founding Go Big Media, has advised DeVos for the past two months. He had previously worked closely with DeVos to elect school choice supporters in Louisiana. DeVos’ efforts led to the rapid expansion of charter school in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He said that the force of opposition reflects the impact that she has had in the school reform movement.
“Before Betsy DeVos, nobody challenged teachers unions. … The unions don’t have a monopoly on legislative or political power anymore. That’s her legacy,” he said.
Stutts added that lawmakers and the public would be able to see beyond the union caricature when she appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.
“She has always asked herself: ‘does this policy put kids first?’ This is somebody who demands results and wants to see more accountability,” he said. “The power of unions will continue to erode when all they care about is their own power, membership dues, and putting adults before children.”