USA Politics First Look

Partisan opposition flares up at Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing

Democrats took aim at President-elect Trump's pick for Secretary of Education at the Senate hearing Tuesday, accusing her of working against public schools and using her wealth to advance conservative policies.

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2017.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters
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When faced with questions from Democrats at her confirmation hearing Tuesday, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos defended her 30-year record of advocating for charter schools and promised to be "a strong advocate for great public schools" as well. 

Ms. DeVos, former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and wife of the heir to the Amway fortune, fielded questions on topics ranging from sexual assault policy to free or affordable child care to potential business-related conflicts of interest. Asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont whether she believed she would have gotten the position even without her family's political contributions, she touted her 30-year record of having worked "very hard on behalf of parents and children." 

DeVos is perhaps best known for her controversial efforts advocating for charter schools in her home state of Michigan as head of the American Federation for Children, a group that promotes school choice and voucher programs. Over the past two decades, the number of charter schools in the United States has rapidly expanded from fewer than 2,000 schools to about 6,700 schools in 2014. The free-market education policies in Michigan may offer a preview of what's to come under DeVos as education secretary, as Trevor Bach reported for The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month: 

To supporters, the reforms she’s championed have allowed parents to “vote with their feet” and find the school that best meets their children’s needs. Moreover, they say, for-profit management has injected a valuable competitive business ethos.

But to critics, the state is impoverishing traditional public schools for very little gain – if any. The state exercises very little oversight over the $1 billion it gives to charter schools. Right now, Education Trust-Midwest points out in a new report, "not even the governor has the authority to shut down chronically low-performing charter authorizers in Michigan." 

The clearest losers, experts say, are the state’s neediest students – the ones other districts or schools don’t want, either because of their academic performance or the cost of meeting special needs. As money flows elsewhere, they are left in schools that lack the attention or funding to make much-needed improvements.

"The result of this, I believe, could be a dramatic reduction of dollars to our poorest schools and a transfer of taxpayer dollars to the free market," David Kirkland, a professor of urban education at New York University Steinhardt, told the Monitor. "It’s detrimental to our most disadvantaged students."

DeVos defended her position on charter schools on Tuesday, pledging to be "a strong advocate for great public schools" going forward. 

"But," she added, "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."

In remarks released by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ahead of Tuesday's confirmation hearing, DeVos said that as Education secretary she would take steps to combat rising higher education costs and student debt while also improving trade and vocational schools and community colleges. Another priority, she noted, would be weakening "burdensome" federal regulations to give local communities more control over schools. 

"President-elect Trump and I know it won't be Washington, D.C., that unlocks our nation's potential, nor a bigger bureaucracy, tougher mandates or a federal agency," she said. "The answer is local control and listening to parents, students and teachers."

If DeVos is confirmed as Education secretary, she has said she will take a salary of only $1.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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