One night only: DeVos dodges tough Senate questions

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Concern, frustration and outright dismay colored many of the exchanges between Democratic members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Betsy DeVos, the Michigan education lobbyist nominated by Donald Trump for education secretary, at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing.

Bristling at a decision from the chair that cut the proceedings short by allowing each senator just one round of questions, every committee Democrat stayed until the final gavel, insisting repeatedly they had both the right and the duty to get clearer answers. Their efforts were not helped as DeVos frequently dodged, bungled or answered in questions, ways that clearly left committee members less than assured that the Michigan voucher and charter advocate embraces mainstream American attitudes on public schools—or that she has the requisite experience to take on the nation's top education post.

DeVos and Sen. Murray

"Can you commit that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny?" ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked at the hearing's outset.

"Not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them," DeVos responded. "I am hopeful we can work together to find common ground in ways we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children."

"I take that as not being willing to commit," Murray responded, obviously unsatisfied with the answer.

It was just the first in a series of exchanges where DeVos neither offered reassurance on nor demonstrated command of such bedrock issues as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, strategies that impose similar accountability requirements for traditional schools and choice schools, protections against sexual assault on campus, bogus college programs and predatory lending, and even policy to prevent gun violence in schools.

Policy 101

Given the compressed time, senators were clearly irritated that DeVos seemed unprepared to discuss some of the most basic concepts. One such area was the question of how to capture and weight student growth in assessments of performance—a debate that has existed in education circles since at least the 1989 education summit under President George H.W. Bush.

"I would like your views on the relative advantage of assessments and using them to measure proficiency and using them to measure growth," Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) requested of the nominee. When DeVos offered a reply that used growth and proficiency interchangeably, Franken was clearly irritated. "This has been a subject that has been debated in the education community for years," he said. "It surprised me that you don't know this issue."

On IDEA, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) spoke of students with disabilities who don't receive adequate resources at the publicly funded voucher schools they attend; under voucher programs like Florida's McKay Scholarships, such students might be asked to sign over their rights in order to attend these schools. Should families maintain the right to seek legal recourse if their children's needs are not being met? she asked DeVos. The nominee refused to address the question other than to offer results of parental satisfaction surveys for parents using vouchers. She suggested that enforcement decisions tied to IDEA, a bedrock civil rights law, be left to states.

DeVos also refused to say she would commit to getting rid of guns in schools, and "I was shaken to the core by her answer," Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) later remarked on social media. Trump campaigned against federal gun-free zones, and DeVos said she would support Trump's efforts even if they include repealing the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which bans weapons in a school zone. This could be left for states to decide, said DeVos, who suggested that guns might be necessary in schools that, for example, are located in remote areas where grizzly bears are a threat.

'I will not be conflicted'

Several senators said their ability to ask questions was impaired, particularly regarding potential conflicts of interest, because the ethics investigation of DeVos was still pending. The DeVos family, which has spent millions lobbying for vouchers and choice, has invested in a student loan refinancing company and K12 Inc., a for-profit online charter school chain.

Asked if she supports companies and individuals profiting from education dollars, effectively taking money away from students to pay CEO salaries and returns to investors, DeVos said, "I don't think the delivery mechanism is the issue."

Stressing that DeVos was nominated by a president-elect who recently paid $125 million to settle with students cheated by Trump University, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed the nominee about her commitment to enforcing the Department of Education "gainful employment" rules "to ensure that no career college receives federal funds unless they can prove they are actually preparing students for gainful employment and not cheating."

"We will certainly review that rule," DeVos replied.

DeVos also worked to distance herself from controversial causes supported by her family's wealth, particularly so-called conversion therapy aimed at changing LGBT individuals' sexual orientation. The Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, named after DeVos' parents, has supported groups that embraced those practices. However, DeVos told senators that she was never party to decisions at the foundation, and she called more than a decade of tax forms listing her as vice president of the foundation's board a "clerical error."

Senators also pressed the nominee for her views on protecting students from sexual assault, particularly whether she would maintain guidance under Title IX dealing with the standard of evidence used in campus administrative hearings on sexual assault. Proponents say the new standard has been an important tool for curbing campus sexual assault, which harms an estimated 1 in 5 women in college.

Asked by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) if she would commit to upholding guidance under Title IX on sexual assault, DeVos said only, "It would be premature for me to do that today."

A full committee vote on DeVos is scheduled for Jan. 24, but only if she get cleared by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics before then. 

[Mike Rose]