Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos defends her support for public schools


President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, sought to reassure members of Congress at her confirmation hearing Tuesday that she supports public education, will take steps to address lingering concerns about business conflicts and will ensure the Every Student Succeeds Act is implemented as Congress intended.

DeVos, who has come under fire for her lack of direct experience in the public education and advocacy of charter schools but also has drawn support from Republican quarters — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — was challenged on a variety of education concerns during testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Patty Murray of Washington state, the committee’s top Democrat, told DeVos at the outset that she and other senators had “major concerns with how you have spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools.”

Conversely, former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman lent support for DeVos’s qualifications saying, “Too many questions are based on the premise that she doesn’t come from the education establishment. But honestly, I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job. She will ask the right questions,” he said.

In her own defense, DeVos said, “I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. 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. It’s really pretty simple.”

Democratic senators on the committee objected to having too little time to probe DeVos’s specific plans and that the Office of Government Ethics had yet to complete its requisite vetting of DeVos’s financial investments for potential conflicts of interest

There was no discussion about DeVos’ views on technology’s place in education, but DeVos did advocate generally that “We need to embrace new pathways of learning.”

“I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve,” she said. “Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof. Yet, too many parents are denied access to the full range of options … choices that many of us here in this room have exercised for our own children.“

DeVos, responding to concerns about higher education, said she expected to work with Congress and all stakeholders to reauthorize the Higher Education Act to meet the needs of today’s college students.

“Escalating tuition is pricing aspiring and talented students out of college. Others are burdened with debts that will take years — or even decades — to pay off,” she said.

“There is no magic wand to make the debt go away, but we do need to take action. It would be a mistake to shift that burden to struggling taxpayers without first addressing why tuition has gotten so high.”

Students should make “informed choices” about the kind of education they want to pursue after high school, she said.

“For too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future,” she said.

Responding to concerns about her family’s extensive business and philanthropic ties, and potential conflicts of interests, DeVos vowed to ensure those conflicts would be resolved to the committee’s satisfaction, including forgoing the usual salary for the position.

DeVos came under particular pressure from Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who pushed DeVos on whether she would enforce rules and regulations guarding against waste, fraud and abuse, particular regarding colleges that are allegedly profiting illegally in using federal education funds. DeVos stopped short of committing to enforcing those regulations without first ensuring they were working as intended.

The Senate HELP Committee, which had originally scheduled to vote on DeVos’s confirmation on Jan. 24, has rescheduled the vote for Jan. 31, according to the HELP committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexandar.