Divisive DeVos Hearing Underscores Competing Visions of Public Education

Tensions were high on Capitol Hill last night as the United States Senate held a confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Senator Lamar Alexander (R- TN), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), called the confirmation hearing into order by recounting some of the positive things the Committee has been able to accomplish with members of both parties coming together, such as 2015’s overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act- a bipartisan accomplishment that President Obama had said was a Christmas miracle. The point the Chairman was making was that his Committee can accomplish a lot for the common good when the parties set aside their differences and find common ground. Unfortunately, however, the DeVos hearing did not take the congenial tone of prior legislative partnerships, but quickly became heated, partisan, and polarized. The divisions in the body highlighted deep disagreement over seemingly irreconcilable visions of education. While Republicans welcomed her, Democratic members recoiled at the idea of DeVos’ crusade against the education establishment and the status quo.

Democratic members lambasted Chairman Alexander for not permitting follow-up questions or a follow-up hearing. But the Chairman explained that the rules in place were the same rules which were followed for Education Secretary nominations under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Foreseeing that this would become a divisive issue in the hearing, Chairman Alexander tackled this concern head on in his opening statement, citing the one-week process between hearing and confirmation for President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the two and a half weeks for his successor, the current Secretary John B. King. The Chairman called himself a firm believer in the Golden Rule and promised the same treatment to DeVos as had been afforded to past nominations. These words did not prevent Democrats from objecting to the rules throughout the hearing. Both the HELP Committee’s ranking member, Senator Patty Murray (D- WA) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) held that, unlike DeVos (in their view), both of President Obama’s picks for education picks were unquestionably qualified and did not require additional hearings. Senator Murray regretted in her remarks that the full ethics review then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded of Obama nominees prior to confirmation hearings had not been conducted in the case of DeVos or other Trump cabinet picks. Chairman Alexander, however, pledged that ethical questions regarding potential conflicts of interests would be fully answered, as did DeVos herself. DeVos also pledged to Senator Murray during her line of questions regarding Devos’ investments that she would sever ties to family businesses if confirmed. “Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved.” She stated emphatically, “I will not be conflicted- period.” DeVos also said that she had provided the Committee with everything it has requested and committed to “making sure we have an ethics agreement resolved and reached.”

Although much was made of these issues, the biggest areas of disagreement- and the source of the scorn which so many Democratic members held for DeVos- was not over procedure or ethics, but over two fundamentally different visions of education. DeVos’ opponents on the Left believe that the solution to failing K-12 schools is additional funding and see the withdrawal of a single cent of funding from even the worst-performing schools as “an assault on public education.” At no point in yesterday’s hearing was this made clearer than in Senator Murray’s questioning of DeVos on this point. Senator Murray asked DeVos if she believed the mission of the Department of Education should be to strengthen public schools. To this, DeVos responded that she did. Murray then asked DeVos to commit “to not cut a single penny from public schools.” DeVos could not commit to this, replying that she was hopeful they could work together to find common ground and ways to strengthen public schools. In Murray’s mind, DeVos had undoubtedly failed the test. “I take that as not being committed to not privatizing public schools,” the Ranking Member retorted. In Senator Murray’s mind and those of others who oppose school choice, an affirmative answer to the first question required answering the second in the affirmative as well. To Senator Murray, strong public schools require strong funding and that in no circumstances could cutting education dollars be justifiable. But DeVos understands that the schools that receive the highest proportion of tax dollars are still failing while allowing dollars to follow students (out of failing schools and into better schools, public or private) is what truly optimizes educational opportunity and results in stronger schools. Similarly, Senator Michael Bennet (D- CO) asked DeVos if she understood that when students opt out of traditional public schools, those schools lose a portion of their funding. This question, however, reveals the mismatched priorities that many Democrats have in education. The focus of the funding question should be the students, not the schools. If the focus is on the students, then one no longer worries about how much funding a school will lose by letting students leave, but focuses on getting as many students out of failing schools and into better options as possible. DeVos may have failed Senator Murray’s test, but in the eyes of parents seeking better opportunities for their children, she passed with flying colors.

Just as the liberal solution to failing K-12 schools has been to give more money, the liberal solution to soaring college tuition has been to make it free. This was exemplified in yesterday’s hearing when Senator Bernie Sanders (I- VT) asked Betsy DeVos if she would work with him and others to accomplish this goal of the progressive left. DeVos gave the perfect response: “I think that’s a really interesting idea, but we need to keep in mind that nothing is truly free.” The response caught the openly socialist Senator off guard, who admitted that DeVos was correct. Sanders’ vision of free college education is that the bill would be footed by millionaires and billionaires like Mrs. Devos herself- whose wealth had been the topic of a previous question the Senator had asked the nominee- namely, whether she believed that she would still have been tapped by President-elect Trump if she had not possessed great wealth and been a top donor to Republican candidates. To this she had replied that she believed she was chosen because of her merits and experience, not because of her wealth or political contributions. But while progressives demand free college, conservatives and other practical education reformers have proposed a myriad of ideas to make higher education more affordable.

In the early stages of last year’s Republican presidential primary, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush laid out a higher education plan that would simplify the financial aid application, empower individuals to save toward higher education with portable tax-free savings accounts, ease the loan repayment process, and give colleges “skin in the game” to hold them accountable to the debt their students incur and incentivize them to take measures to reduce costs on their own. Incidentally former Governor Bush and future Secretary DeVos are staunch allies in the fight for bold, education reform. Bush has publicly spoken highly of DeVos’ selection since it was first announced by the incoming Trump Administration and penned an op-ed praising her qualifications on the eve of her confirmation hearing. Like Bush and other education reformers, DeVos also believes that our education system should also embrace alternatives to college. “For too long a college degree has been pushed as the only option,” she contended in her opening remarks. “Craftsmanship is not a fallback, but a noble pursuit.” This statement is a welcome change in how we view post-secondary education. College is not for everyone and that is not a bad thing for those for whom it isn’t. Robust college alternatives that prepare graduates to succeed in technical fields should be a welcome part of the equation. We can expect DeVos to embrace innovative ideas to reform higher education that ensure all graduates are career-ready- and to reject the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric that promises free college at the expense of the nation’s “millionaires and billionaires.”

When the status quo isn’t working, it is time to try something new. Betsy DeVos is exactly what our education system needs. As an outsider, she is unafraid to embrace innovative approaches in order to tackle systemic problems. She has a record of serving and fighting for low-income children in underperforming school districts that spans the course of nearly four decades. She understands that college isn’t for everyone and wants to make sure that all graduates are career-ready. And, most significantly in the lives of those whose hearts she has touched over her many years of service, she is a champion for school choice. During his turn of questioning at the hearing, Senator Rand Paul (R- KY) cited the powerful documentary Waiting for Superman– an eye-opening look into our nation’s worst-performing public school districts. The scene Senator Paul recalled was one in which anxious parents waited to hear about whether or not their child had won the lottery to attend a charter school that would provide an opportunity to learn and advance that was nonexistent in the crumbling neighborhood schools of these inner cities. Senator Paul recounted the tears of joy from parents whose child had won the opportunity to attend the better school as well as the tears of hopelessness from those whose sons or daughters would be left behind. Attending a quality school shouldn’t be tantamount to winning a lottery. No child should be left behind in a failing school. Betsy DeVos will fight for children and has the potential to be the most transformative Secretary of Education in the history of the Department. She is the Superman that students and parents have been waiting for.


**The full Senate confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos can be viewed here.