Republican philanthropist and mega-donor Betsy DeVos portrayed herself Tuesday as an advocate for parents who dream of sending their children to schools with “rigor, challenges and safe environments,” if she is confirmed as Donald Trump’s Education secretary.
In her opening statement, DeVos, who has spent millions advocating for tuition voucher programs and charter schools, pushed back against critics who say she would try to dismantle traditional public schools as the nation’s top educator.
“My greatest educational influence in life was a public school teacher named Elsa Prince,” DeVos said of her mother, although neither she, nor her children attended public schools.
DeVos acknowledged “the vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools.”
But she said parents should have choices, among them, magnet schools, charter schools, traditional public schools, religious schools and home schooling — or some combination of those.
“If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools,” DeVos said. “But, 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.”
Democrats hit back hard, expressing disappointment that DeVos’ hearing was occurring although they said they had not received the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics. She is the first of Trump’s Cabinet nominees for which the Senate is holding a hearing before the ethics office has completed its review of her finances.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) the committee’s top Democrat, said in her opening statement she was “disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics.” She added that was was “extremely concerned” that the Senate was “cutting corners and rushing nominees through” the process.
Senate HELP Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said a committee vote slated for next Tuesday would be held only “if the final Office of Government Ethics letter is received by this Friday in order to give senators a chance to review it before Tuesday.”
Democrats had pushed to delay DeVos’ hearing until government ethics officials finish combing through her vast financial holdings and reach an agreement with DeVos that outlines how she will address potential conflicts of interest as secretary of education. The hearing was initially scheduled for last week but was postponed amid a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over the ethics process.
OGE had not yet finished that process as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, a Senate aide confirmed to POLITICO.
Protester Helen Moore disrupted the overflow chamber, shouting, “Betsy DeVos is an evil woman.” “She destroyed Detroit public schools,”
“We want equity and not the illusion of school choice” said Jason Brown, the national director of Journey for Justice Alliance.
These are key moments from the hearing:
Privatizing public schools
Alexander, a former education secretary, contended that DeVos is in the mainstream of public opinion in her support of public funding for charter schools and private schools, while her critics are not.
He noted a long string of officials, including Democratic as well as Republican presidents, as well as the last six education secretaries, who support charter schools, which he described as public schools with fewer government rules and fewer union rules.
DeVos danced around the question of whether she would steer public funds away from traditional public schools.
“Can you commit that you will not work to privatize public schools are cut a single penny for public education?” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked DeVos.
DeVos responded: “I look forward to working with you to talk about how to address the needs of all parents and students, and we acknowledged today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them.”
“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 that are right for them,” DeVos continued.
Murray pressed her again, saying, “I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatize public schools.”
“I guess I would not characterize it in that way,” DeVos said.
DeVos: ‘I will not be conflicted. Period.’
DeVos, a billionaire who has made some investments in education-related companies, said she would avoid conflicts of interest as Education secretary — but she declined to commit to returning to the Senate education committee for additional questions once her government ethics review is complete.
“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved,” she said. “I will not be conflicted. Period. I commit that to you all.”
DeVos said that one conflict that was identified during the government ethics review of her finances, which she did not name, was “in the process of being divested.” She added that “anything that is deemed to be a conflict will not be part of our investing” going forward.
DeVos is indirectly invested in the online student lender Social Finance, and she previously invested in the for-profit charter school company K12 Inc.
Asked by Murray whether she would come back to the Senate HELP Committee once the Office of Government Ethics finalizes its review of her finances, DeVos dodged the question. “I commit to making sure an ethics agreement is resolved and reached,” she said.
In addition, DeVos said that neither she nor her husband would make political contributions while she is the secretary of education.
Olive branch to teachers
DeVos struck a conciliatory note towards teachers despite her history of battles with teachers’ unions.
“Our nation’s schools are filled with talented, devoted professionals, who successfully meet the needs of many, many children,” she said. “But even our best schools don’t work for all. This isn’t the fault of teachers, but a reality that all students are unique, learn differently, and excel at their own pace.”
She contended the answers to schools’ problems were not in “a bigger bureaucracy, tougher mandates or a federal agency,” but in local control.