CONFIRMATION HEARING: Betsy DeVos, nominee for Education Secretary

4 min read

This is a special view on the confirmation hearings provided by POPVOX interns from Brown University. We hope you enjoy and learn from their fresh perspective and front-row seat on Capitol Hill.

After being pushed back a week due to an Office of Government Ethics backup, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) held the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos. Following a week of controversial hearings, The hearing was one of the more controversial confirmation hearings, with sharp distinctions between Senate Republicans and Democrats on what the education funding and private, public, and charter schools.

Wait, so what is a confirmation hearing?

The Constitution requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate for Cabinet nominees. In order for a Cabinet nominee to be confirmed, they must go through a hearing with the relevant Senate committee. For the Secretary of Education, it is the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). The committee votes on the nominee before going to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Who’s on Senate HELP?

Senate HELP is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, TN], with Sen. Patty Murray [D, WA] as Ranking Member. There are 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats. See if your member is on Senate HELP.

So, what does the Department of Education do?

The Department of Education (ED) oversees federal education policy. ED regulates laws surrounding civil rights and privacy with education, and also is integral in providing student loans for college. If confirmed, DeVos would oversee the direction of education policy and the nature of federal funding, shaping how the government approaches schooling.

Who is Betsy DeVos?

DeVos is a deeply entrenched Michigan Republican, who has served in both political and activist roles. She has worked for the Republican National Party and was Chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party. In addition to politics, DeVos was a member of the Board of Trustees for the John F. Kennedy Center and founded the self-named Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. She has also established herself as an outspoken support of charter schools and vouchers, advocating a new way to do public education.

Why should I care?

Education policy directly affects most Americans, from early childhood to post-college. DeVos vision for public education funding would be a substantial shift away from the traditional public school system. In addition, DeVos role allows her to shape the way the US handles rising student debt and access to college.  

What happened in the actual hearing?

Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, TN], the Chair of the HELP committee, laid out clear procedures for the hearing. Citing precedent from past education hearings, Alexander allowed only five minutes of questions and one round of questioning. The ban on a second round of questioning created tension between committee Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats were already angry about DeVos lack of paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics, and had agreed to not push the hearing on the condition the paperwork was in. As of yesterday evening, the OGE had yet to issue a report, prompting criticism that it was impossible to have a full hearing without that information.  The line for the hearing was well over one hundred people long, with about one-third there to protest DeVos’s education policies in Michigan, foreshadowing the conflict within the Committee as well.

In his opening remarks, Sen. Alexander laid out the three biggest arguments against DeVos, and why they were actually assets:  increasing funding to charter schools, enabling low income families more access to voucher programs, and using her wealth to further her own political ideas. DeVos did say later in the hearing, however, she would take a salary of $1 if confirmed. Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray [D, WA], introduced Democrats’ concerns surrounding DeVos’ push to privatize public education and the continued controversy surrounding lack of tax returns and ethics papers

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman [D, CT], gave DeVos’ introduction, proposing that her status a reformer and someone outside the status quo makes her uniquely capable of creating change in the education department. Selecting a Democratic politician appeared to be DeVos attempt to prove to HELP Democrats that her ideas had bipartisan support. In her own opening remarks, DeVos highlighted that “we need to embrace new pathways of learning,” encouraging charter schools and vouchers to create choice. In order to fix the education system, DeVos proposed local control and listening to parents, kids and teachers. DeVos also chose to mention the Every Student Succeeds Act (S. 1177) before questioning, stating that she would enforce it.

During the three hour hearing, all the Democrats on the committee brought sharp criticism and pushed for a second round of questions, while Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch, [R, UT], and chose to defer his time after celebrating DeVos’ qualifications and nomination, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, [R, LA], did the same before asking for a commitment to funding programs for students with dyslexia. Sen. Lisa Murkowski [R, AK], was the only Republican to voice concern over DeVos’ nomination, citing constituent concerns in rural Alaska where public schools were the only option. After Sen. Murkowski’s questioning, DeVos committed to not ignore the public school system.

Although everyone has the same goal of improving the quality and access to education, there were sharp ideological divides along party lines. The underlying theme of the hearing was the interpretation DeVos go to response that she advocates for choice for students and parents, because they know best. Sen. Bernie Sanders, [I, VT], summarized Democrat’s concerns in response to DeVos, saying it’s “not a question of opportunity, it’s a question of being able.” Most of the Republicans latched onto the idea of choice because it meant less government intervention, and allowed states to have more freedom in designing education, while Democrats pushed for improving the public schools that already exist.

In a hearing marked by division, here is a quick list of the biggest controversies:

  • Guns – When Sen. Chris Murphy [D, CT], asked if she would support Trump’s call to eliminate gun free zones at schools, DeVos said that was a matter best left to the states, citing Sen. Michael Enzi’s, [R, WY], need for guns to fight grizzlies at certain rural schools.

  • Experience – Sen. Elizabeth Warren [D, MA] grilled DeVos on her qualifications to run a loan program or if she had any experience applying for financial aid, both of which DeVos said no to.

  • Sexual Assault – Sen. Bob Casey [D, PA] asked if DeVos would commit to upholding Title IX guidelines, she was noncommittal and said there were a range of opinions she would look research.  

  • Metrics – In one of the most heated exchanges, Sen. Al Franken [D, MN], asked for DeVos thoughts on the growing debate surrounding whether to measure growth or proficiency in schools, she appeared to not be familiar with the issue.

  • IDEA – During Sen. Tim Kaine’s, [D, VA], questioning, he asked if DeVos would adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act , but DeVos said it was a matter best left to the states. In a follow up, Sen. Maggie Hassan [D, NH], asked if she knew that was a federal law, and DeVos admitted she might have been confused.


So, what happens now?

The Senate HELP committee has until the end of the week to submit written question for DeVos, and the committee will likely vote next before the nomination goes to the Senate floor. In the meantime, tell your senators what you think!


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