What we learned (and didn’t) about Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing

Betsy DeVos

 

At her confirmation hearing, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next secretary of education spent more than three hours before the nation trying to recast herself as “mainstream.”

After weeks of skewering criticism from public school advocates who have painted her as an extremist who opposes public education, Betsy DeVos — the billionaire philanthropist and school-choice advocate — used her Senate confirmation hearing to mention her mother’s history as a public school teacher. She repeatedly stressed that her support for policies such as private-school vouchers is about giving parents control over their children’s education. And she pushed back against critics who suggested that her support of free-market policies has allowed failing charter schools to proliferate in her home state of Michigan.

She also stumbled on some key issues — and raised the prospect that some America’s children need protection from grizzly bears.

Here’s a quick roundup of what else we learned, and didn’t, about DeVos’s views on key education issues:

On school vouchers: DeVos has long lobbied for states to allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition. As secretary, she said, she would encourage states to create voucher programs — but not try to impose them. “I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation,” she said. She said she would “absolutely” support a state that wanted to use federal education dollars to give students $2,100 scholarships for tuition in non-public schools.

One reason vouchers are controversial is that some versions of the policy allow public education dollars to go to religious or private schools that can discriminate in admissions or require students to sign away rights to special-education services. DeVos didn’t say whether she thinks schools that receive vouchers should be required to serve all students.

Her biggest stumble of the day came when Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asked whether schools that get federal funding should have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to address students’ special needs. She responded, “I think that’s a matter best left to the states.” In a follow-up, when asked if she was aware that the IDEA was a federal law that she would need to enforce as education secretary, she admitted that she may have been confused and said federal laws must be followed.

On science: Some critics have questioned DeVos’s commitment to fact-based science education because of her past support for Republicans who have denied that climate change exists and who voted for bills that bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. DeVos didn’t address her position on climate change, but she insisted that she supports science in schools. “I support the teaching of great science,” she said.

On guns (and bears) in schools: DeVos deflected a question from Connecticut Sen. Christopher Murphy about whether guns should be allowed in or around public schools. “I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” she answered. When Murphy, whose state saw the worst school shooting in U.S. history at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012, expressed incredulity, DeVos noted a school in Wyoming that she heard about from Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi that is protected by a grizzly bear fence. “I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming,” she said. “I think probably there, I would imagine, that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

U.S. Senate video feed

Sen. Chris Murphy questions Betsy DeVos

On Detroit: Much of the criticism of DeVos has focused on her influence on schools in Michigan, where she has advocated for the dismantling of the Detroit school district and against new regulations for the state’s charter schools. After Democratic senators confronted her with a long list of unfavorable statistics about the quality of both district and charter schools in Detroit, DeVos insisted that charter schools in Detroit are doing well, especially given the high percentage of Detroit children who live in poverty. “Actually, I believe that there’s a lot that has gone right in Detroit and in Michigan with regard to charter schools,” she said, citing a study that found Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers. (But they all struggle: Just 10 of Detroit’s 200 district and charter schools had test scores in the top half across Michigan.)

She called suggestions that policies she’s promoted have shielded charter schools from consequences from poor performance “false news,” since 122 charter schools across the state have been shut down for poor performance. Still, the state has no restrictions on how many charter schools can open, and groups with long records of allowing low-performing charter schools to stay open are not prevented from opening new ones.

On how student progress should be measured: What should matter more, that a third-grader who arrived at school at a first-grade reading level is now at second-grade level, or that the student failed the third-grade test? That question has been at the core of the debate over how schools are evaluated in recent years. But when Minnesota Sen. Al Franken put the question to her, DeVos didn’t have a quick answer, stumbling a bit over the definitions of growth and proficiency. (Franken didn’t give her a chance to follow up.)

On her wealth and conflicts: Like many of Trump’s other wealthy Cabinet nominees (and Trump himself), DeVos has faced questions over conflicts of interest she could face in office. DeVos said she intends to take a salary of $1, and to forgo a tax loophole that can help wealthy nominees save money. “I will not be conflicted, period. I commit that to you all,” she said. But some pieces of information are still missing, because the Office of Government Ethics has not completed DeVos’s ethics agreement.

DeVos did offer one new tidbit: that she was listed as a board member of her mother’s foundation on federal tax forms because of “a clerical error.” The foundation gave to Focus on the Family, which has supported gay conversion therapy. DeVos said she doesn’t support that work.

On the Office of Civil Rights: Under Obama, the Education Department stepped up enforcement of civil rights policies and issued guidance on issues affecting transgender students. Some civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale back the Office of Civil Rights. Those concerns increased after Politico reported that DeVos had spoken about the office with Republican Sen. James Lankford, who is skeptical about its work to ensure transgender students have certain protections in schools. A Lankford aide said he and DeVos had talked of “reining in” that office. In Tuesday’s hearings, DeVos said she had not used those words.

On violence against women: Like attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, DeVos was asked whether touching women without their consent — as Trump bragged about doing in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape released last fall — is sexual assault. And like Sessions, she said yes.

On other education policy issues: What does DeVos think about academic standards, teacher evaluations, how to improve struggling schools, segregation — the issues that most affect the way students and teachers across the country experience school on a daily basis? We still don’t know, because DeVos wasn’t asked about them.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erin Einhorn and Sarah Darville on January 18, 2017. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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