DeVos: Won’t Dismantle Public Schools as Education Secretary

January 18, 2017 Updated: January 18, 2017

WASHINGTON—In a sometimes contentious confirmation hearing, education secretary pick Betsy DeVos pledged that she would not seek to dismantle public schools amid questions by Democrats about her qualifications, political donations, and long-time work advocating for charter schools and school choice.

DeVos said she would address “the needs of all parents and students” but that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work in education.

But Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee grilled the wealthy Republican Tuesday on issues ranging from sexual assault to child care, students with disabilities, and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked DeVos outright if she would have gotten the job had it not been for her family’s political contributions. “As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility,” she responded. “I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years.”

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, said she was “extremely disappointed” that DeVos had not finalized her financial and ethics disclosures ahead of the hearing. She also asked whether DeVos would divest herself of any family business enterprises that may represent a conflict of interest in her job, including one student loan refinancing company.

“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted. Period,” DeVos said.

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, expressed confidence that DeVos is an “excellent” choice for the job. “She is on the side of our children,” he said.

DeVos said that if she is confirmed education secretary, she—like a number of others in in Trump’s cabinet—will take a salary of only $1.

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos talks to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos talks to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

When asked about whether she would rein in the department’s Office for Civil Rights’ work to protect students from campus sexual assault, DeVos said she would “be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled and with great sensitivity to those who are victims.”

Asked by Sanders about her views on tuition-free public colleges and universities, DeVos said: “I think we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody is going to pay for it.”

She responded to Sanders’ question on whether she would support making child care free or much more affordable for low-income families, as is the case in many countries around the world, saying that she feels strongly about “parents having an opportunity for child care for their children.”

“But it’s not a question of opportunity,” Sanders fired back, raising his voice. “It’s a question of being able to afford it!”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Facing criticism from teachers unions that she is working against public education, DeVos told the committee that she will be “a strong advocate for great public schools.”

“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.”

As the hearing dragged on into its fourth hour, Democratic senators made repeated requests with Chairman Alexander to allow them to pose another round of questions to DeVos, but he refused, citing procedures at previous hearings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questions Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questions Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

DeVos, 59, said she will seek to address rising higher education costs and massive student debt, but also advance trade and vocational schools as well as community colleges because “craftsmanship is not a fallback—but a noble pursuit.”

DeVos, the wife of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has spent more than two decades advocating for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, as well as funding the Acton Institute, which promotes “a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles,” according to its website.

In a letter addressed to the committee, 38 prominent education groups and teachers’ organizations expressed concern that DeVos’ track record bodes ill for public education.

“Over the course of her career as a major campaign contributor, soft-money donor and lobbyist, DeVos has used her considerable wealth to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students,” the letter said.

Epoch Times contributed to this report