Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick, hints at sweeping changes ahead

·Senior National Affairs Reporter
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos talks to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Scott was to introduce her to the committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos listens to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., before testifying on Capitol Hill on Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education, indicated that she is open to radically rethinking the federal government’s role in education on issues from sexual assault cases on college campuses to cutting federal support for the nation’s public schools in a contentious confirmation hearing Tuesday evening.

Democratic senators repeatedly pressed DeVos to spell out her specific vision for the Department of Education, but the education activist and billionaire from Michigan kept mostly to generalities, outlining a broad vision of school choice in which parents could use state money to send their kids to private or charter schools. Democratic senators questioned whether this would drain money from already struggling public schools and reduce options for children with special needs.

In her opening statement, DeVos said students should have the option of “magnet, virtual, charter, home or faith-based” schooling, but she stressed that the “vast majority” of kids would remain in traditional public schools.

The Trump transition team was aware that DeVos would face heat in her confirmation hearing. Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and former deputy secretary for the Treasury, coached DeVos for the hearing, according to a source on the transition team. She was calm and collected under aggressive questions from the committee’s Democrats but also at times appeared evasive or unprepared, declining to answer direct questions about whether or not she would support certain policies.

When pressed by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, DeVos would not commit to maintaining the same or a higher level of federal funding for public schools. She told Sen. Bob Casey she would “review” federal regulations that govern sexual assault allegations on college campuses. DeVos told Sen. Elizabeth Warren that she would also review the department’s gainful employment rule, which revokes federal funding for colleges whose graduates have low employment rates — an Obama-era crackdown on for-profit colleges. She said states should decide whether all schools — charter and public — should be required to meet the needs of kids with disabilities.

DeVos and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., meanwhile, got into a protracted back and forth about whether she believed public schools and charter schools should face the same government accountability standards. DeVos asserted several times that she believes in accountability in general, without answering Kaine’s question about whether the standards should be the same.

Two of the committee’s Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, signaled some reservations about DeVos. Murkowski said her constituents are “concerned” about DeVos’ nomination because in rural districts, school choice is not an option. Collins mentioned offhand that the two did not see eye to eye on some issues, without elaborating.

DeVos also distanced herself from her relatives’ past support of anti-gay rights groups and causes. She said that tax forms from 2001 and 2014 that listed her as a member of the board of her mother’s foundation, which made some of the donations, were a “clerical error.” She also disavowed that foundation’s support of groups that promote “conversion therapy” for gay youngsters. “I’ve never believed in that,” DeVos said. “I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being.”

Other senators questioned her qualifications to be secretary of education. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, appeared to stump her with a question about “growth” versus “proficiency” standards — a key education policy debate. DeVos has mentored students and pushed for changes to the school system in Michigan but has never worked in a school. She and her husband have donated millions to Republican candidates and conservative causes over decades.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multibillionaire [and Republican donor] … do you think you’d be sitting here today?” Sen. Bernie Sanders asked her. DeVos answered “yes,” mentioning her work as an education activist and mentor. (Collins later called this question “unfair and unwarranted.”)

DeVos also said she believed states and local governments should be able to decide whether to allow civilians in schools to be armed. When pressed on that by Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, she explained that in a rural school in Wyoming, for example, “I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in that school to protect from potential grizzlies.” She added that her “heart bleeds” for victims of gun violence.

The senators on the committee argued among themselves for the last 20 minutes of the hearing about whether Chair Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, would allow the Democrats a second round of questioning. He remained adamant that he would not allow any more questions, to the visible annoyance of the Democrats. Senators are allowed to submit more questions for DeVos in writing.

Read more from Yahoo News: