Senate committee advances Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary

Next, there will be a Senate floor vote.

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. CREDIT: AP/Carolyn Kaster
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. CREDIT: AP/Carolyn Kaster

On Tuesday, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for education secretary, despite the fact that she lacks basic knowledge of federal education laws and committee members still have concerns about her financial disclosures. The vote split along party lines.

The next step will be a vote on the Senate floor. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said during Tuesday’s committee hearing that although she would vote for a DeVos to receive a full Senate vote, she “would not advise [DeVos] to yet count on my vote.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) also said she would “continue to evaluate her nomination” before it comes to a vote on the Senate floor.

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DeVos is a fierce supporter of vouchers for students to attend private schools and for-profit charter schools. During her committee hearing earlier this month, she refused to say she wouldn’t reduce funding for public schools and would not commit to enforcing a 2011 department guidance on campus rape.

Murkowski said her offices have received many phone calls opposing DeVos’ nomination and that she has “serious concerns” about whether DeVos understands the needs of rural students, who may not have access to the same school choice students in suburban and urban areas do. Murkowski said DeVos “has a lot to learn.”

Collins said she was “surprised” at DeVos’ lack of familiarity with federal legislation protecting the rights of students with disabilities. During DeVos confirmation hearing earlier this month, DeVos displayed a lack of knowledge of the requirements of the law.

Senate offices have received thousands of phone calls opposing the nominee. The National Education Association was responsible for more than 40,000 phone calls and one million emails, the Washington Post reported. The opposition to DeVos’ nomination is widespread — it includes both teachers unions and groups that support charter schools.

In response to the argument from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that Democrats were not being fair to DeVos, ranking Democrat on the committee Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) referenced DeVos’ financial disclosures, which she said are incomplete, and her answers to senators’ questions, many of which Murray said “look copy and pasted from previous statements or are reiterations of law and no true responses at all.”

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DeVos used several sentences from sources without attribution, one of which was a statement from Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who once represented the district that includes Sandy Hook Elementary School, said at Tuesday’s committee hearing that DeVos’ answer to his question about guns in schools — that schools could use guns to protect students from grizzly bears — was unacceptable. But he also said he was concerned about her recent answers to questions about civil rights issues. The department collects data on issues such as school discipline rates for students by race and whether they have a disability, which helps the department understand whether or not student discipline rates are higher for certain groups of students.

“I asked if she would maintain the requirement that schools submit civil rights data to the department … That’s not controversial … She would not commit to continuing to require that the data be submitted. That is absolutely stunning,” Murphy said.

“She even refused to commit to canceling loans of students that have been cheated by law breaking for-profit colleges.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said she must oppose DeVos in part because the nominee wouldn’t commit to protecting students who attended colleges that defrauded them. Warren has been a staunch advocate for students who attended for-profit college chains that provided misleading job placement rates and advised low-income students to take on private loans.

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“I gave her the opportunity to prove to Americans that she is serious about standing up for students,” said Warren of DeVos. “I asked her basic straightforward questions about protecting students from fraud committed by shady for-profit colleges …In her response, she even refused to commit to canceling loans of students that have been cheated by law breaking for-profit colleges.”

Warren said she also continues to have concerns about conflicts of interest DeVos may have, since her finances are connected to for-profit education companies.