By Helin Jung
Jan 18, 2017
Betsy DeVos faced senators at her confirmation hearing before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The 59-year-old billionaire Republican donor lacks any experience working in education but has pushed for voucher programs for over 20 years.
During her hearing, DeVos revealed gaps in her knowledge about education policy and laws, prompting some on social media to say that it was like a job interview gone wrong. Here were some of concerning moments from the proceedings.
- When she didn’t know the difference between proficiency and growth.
Sen. Al Franken, Democrat from Minnesota, asked DeVos about the “relative advantage” of assessing schools using proficiency over growth, but DeVos did not seem to grasp the difference between the two measurements.
“I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency,” DeVos said,
“I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”
“Well, that’s growth,” Franken said. “That’s not proficiency.”
DeVos could not take a stand on which measurement she preferred because she had trouble with the definitions of the two means of tracking performance in schools.
- When she couldn’t say that guns shouldn’t be in schools.
Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, questioned DeVos about her views on whether guns should be allowed in schools. Murphy was a senator during the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 and has forcefully advocated for gun-control laws.
DeVos responded that states should decide school gun policies. Citing Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, DeVos said, “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”
The grizzly bear comment provided fodder for commenters on Twitter:
Trump has stated that he is opposed to gun-free zones in schools and that trained teachers should be allowed to have guns, according to CNN.
- When she seemed unfamiliar with the federal law protecting students with disabilities.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat from Virginia, asked DeVos about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees services to students with disabilities. It has been a federal law since 1990. Kaine asked if all schools should meet the requirements of the law.
“I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states,” DeVos said.
Further questioning from Kaine seemed to reveal DeVos’s lack of understanding about IDEA. Later, Sen. Maggie Hassan, Democrat from New Hampshire, asked more pointedly about DeVos’s knowledge of IDEA.
“So were you unaware when I just asked you about the IDEA that it was a federal law?” Hassan asked.
“I may have confused it,” DeVos said.
- When she couldn’t say whether she would continue funding public schools.
DeVos, a staunch opponent of the public school system, has been accused of wanting to gut public schools, which provide the education for 90 percent of children in the United States.
“Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?” asked Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington.
“I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students,” DeVos said. “We acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. I’m hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”
“I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education,” Murray said.
“I guess I wouldn’t characterize it in that way,” DeVos said.
- When she couldn’t state definitively that all schools should be held to the same standards of accountability.
When Sen. Kaine asked DeVos about whether she would “insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter, or private,” DeVos could not commit to a yes or no response, and instead repeated the phrase, “I support accountability” four times.
DeVos has been a lightning rod in her home state of Michigan, where she has thrown her resources behind deregulating charter schools. In Michigan, analysis has shown that charter schools perform more poorly than public schools.
- When she wouldn’t commit to upholding the Department of Education’s current guidance around campus sexual assault.
Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat from Pennsylvania, asked DeVos about sexual assault in schools. She agreed with Casey that the issue is a problem but would not commit to upholding to the guidance issued by the Department of Education in 2011 on how sexual violence should be addressed on campuses, saying it would be “premature” to make that commitment.
DeVos did assert during the hearing that assault “is never OK,” and that she would characterize Trump’s comments about grabbing women by the genitals as sexual assault.
- When she would not commit to enforcing gainful employment regulations for for-profit schools.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, questioned DeVos on her experience with financial aid and student loans (DeVos had none). Warren brought up the potential conflict of interest presented by Trump, whose own for-profit institution, Trump University, was accused of fraud in multiple lawsuits that were settled for $25 million.
Warren explained that there were rules already in place — gainful employment regulations — that protect students from getting cheated by for-profit schools (one analysis found that student debt at for-profit colleges increased almost $200 billion in 14 years; the gainful employment regulations require schools to meet a minimum debt-to-income ratio).
Warren asked, “What I want to know is, will you commit to enforcing these rules to ensure that no career college receives federal funds unless they can prove that they are actually preparing their students for gainful employment and not cheating them?”
DeVos would not commit to enforcing the regulations and instead said that she would “certainly review that rule and see that it’s actually achieving what the intentions are.”
- When she did not think her family’s enormous contributions to the Republican Party helped her get the nomination.
DeVos acknowledged that it was “possible” that she and her family have collectively given $200 million to the GOP.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent from Vermont, asked DeVos, “Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican party, that you would be sitting here today?”
DeVos answered, “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”
In an opinion piece, DeVos once wrote that she expects a “return on our investment” when she and her family make political donations. “Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”
- When she called the fact that she was listed as a vice president of her mother’s foundation a “clerical error.”
Sen. Franken asked DeVos about her family’s support of anti-LBTQ policies and whether she believed in conversion therapy. “I’ve never believed in that,” she said. “First of all, let me say, I fully embrace equality and I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination.”
DeVos’s family comes into question on the issue of conversion therapy because, as pointed out by The Intercept and Vice News, DeVos’s mother’s nonprofit, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, gave money to Focus on the Family, which states that “individuals should have the availability of professional therapy options for unwanted homosexual attractions and behavior.”
Sen. Hassan asked DeVos about being on the board of the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. DeVos denied this. When questioned again about forms listing her for years as a vice president of the foundation, DeVos attributed this to a “clerical error.”
It suggests a discrepancy between what DeVos outwardly states she believes and what she and her family members support monetarily.
This post has been updated.
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