Senators Clash Over School Choice, Experience, Conflicts of Interest in DeVos Hearing

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

In a tense and wide-ranging hearing that lasted more than three hours Tuesday evening, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee grilled Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos on a number of issues, including her views on public education, her potential conflicts of interest stemming from family investments, her experience with education policy, and her willingness to enforce regulations currently in place.

But before the questioning even began, the hearing got off to a rocky start when Democratic senators learned there would not be an opportunity for a second round of questions. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the committee, said he was following the “Golden Rule,” and sticking to precedent set by the confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s two nominees, Arne Duncan, and current Education Secretary John B. King Jr.

“Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side. She has dedicated her life to helping children, especially low-income children, have the opportunity to attend a good school,” Alexander said in his opening statement. “Most of the criticism of Mrs. DeVos has been focused on three things: Her support for more public charter schools; her advocacy for giving lower-income parents more choices; her use of her considerable wealth to advance effectively those two ideas. I believe Mrs. DeVos is in the mainstream of public opinion on the best way to help children succeed, and her critics are outside of it.”

Ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), however, took a more skeptical approach toward the hearing, stating in her opening remarks that she was concerned with DeVos’ potential conflicts of interest, her reported views on the Office for Civil Rights, and a lack of clarity on DeVos’ positions on higher education.

“I have major concerns with how you have spent your career fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools,” Murray said.

Democratic senators also took issue with the fact that the hearing took place before they received a review of DeVos’ paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics, and that DeVos refused to provide tax returns as a way to examine potential areas for conflict of interest.

While the majority of the hearing focused on DeVos’ positions related to K-12 education, several senators asked for more detail on her thoughts on higher education policies and issues, such as campus sexual assault, data transparency, tuition-free public college, regulatory burden, and the complexity of managing the federal student aid system.

Sen. John Isakson (R-GA) focused in on a congressionally mandated study on the negative effects of regulatory burden, in which NASFAA participated and asked whether the nominee would take whatever action she could with her existing authority to roll back any regulations there were administratively burdensome and unnecessary. DeVos responded that she was committed to exploring the recommendations in the report, and working with Congress on other pieces that could only be changed through legislation.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) asked DeVos whether she would work with him and other members of Congress to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through federal and state efforts. DeVos said that while it is an “interesting” idea, “nothing in life is truly free.”

DeVos also faced several questions on whether she would support LGBTQ students, as some senators raised concerns with donations by some of her family members to anti-LGBTQ groups and causes.

Another fierce line of questioning came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who quizzed DeVos on her knowledge of the Department of Education’s role in higher education, including overseeing the federal student loan program and the federal student aid system.

“The financial futures of an entire generation of young people depend on your department getting that right,” Warren said.

Warren went on to ask DeVos whether she had any experience running a bank, managing or overseeing a $1 trillion loan program, and whether she or her children had taken out a federal student loan or had experience with the Pell Grant program, to all of which DeVos answered that she had not.

“Let’s start with the basics,” Warren continued. “Do you support protecting federal taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse? … We all know that President-elect Trump’s experience with higher education was to create a fake university.” Warren went on to ask DeVos how she would plan to protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse by colleges that receive federal student aid.

DeVos said she would “be very vigilant,” and that she and her department would “ensure that federal monies are used properly and appropriately.” DeVos stopped short of saying she would support the current gainful employment rule, rather saying that she would review the rule to ensure it is “achieving what the intentions are.”

Throughout the hearing, Democratic senators continued to ask for an opportunity to go through a second round of questioning, or to hold a second hearing before taking a vote. While it does not appear there will be a second hearing, Alexander said senators will be able to submit additional questions before the committee votes. The committee will also hold an executive session on January 24, during which time senators may discuss the issue of tax returns and whether submitting those documents should be a requirement for future nominees. The committee is also expected to vote during that executive session. Despite sharp questioning from Democrats and lingering questions about her disclosures, it does not appear that DeVos’ confirmation has been derailed.


Publication Date: 1/18/2017

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