Takeaways

What we learned (and didn’t) about Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing

Betsy DeVos answers questions during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next secretary of education spent more than three hours before the nation Tuesday night trying to recast herself as “mainstream.”

After weeks of skewering criticism from public school advocates who have painted her as an extremist who opposes public education, Betsy DeVos — the billionaire philanthropist and school-choice advocate — used her Senate confirmation hearing to mention her mother’s history as a public school teacher. She repeatedly stressed that her support for policies such as private-school vouchers is about giving parents control over their children’s education. And she pushed back against critics who suggested that her support of free-market policies has allowed failing charter schools to proliferate in her home state of Michigan.

She also stumbled on some key issues — and raised the prospect that some America’s children need protection from grizzly bears.

Here’s a quick roundup of what else we learned, and didn’t, about DeVos’s views on key education issues:

On school vouchers: DeVos has long lobbied for states to allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition. As secretary, she said, she would encourage states to create voucher programs — but not try to impose them. “I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation,” she said. She said she would “absolutely” support a state that wanted to use federal education dollars to give students $2,100 scholarships for tuition in non-public schools.

One reason vouchers are controversial is that some versions of the policy allow public education dollars to go to religious or private schools that can discriminate in admissions or require students to sign away rights to special-education services. DeVos didn’t say whether she thinks schools that receive vouchers should be required to serve all students.

Her biggest stumble of the day came when Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asked whether schools that get federal funding should have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to address students’ special needs. She responded, “I think that’s a matter best left to the states.” In a follow-up, when asked if she was aware that the IDEA was a federal law that she would need to enforce as education secretary, she admitted that she may have been confused and said federal laws must be followed.

On science: Some critics have questioned DeVos’s commitment to fact-based science education because of her past support for Republicans who have denied that climate change exists and who voted for bills that bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. DeVos didn’t address her position on climate change, but she insisted that she supports science in schools. “I support the teaching of great science,” she said.

On guns (and bears) in schools: DeVos deflected a question from Connecticut Sen. Christopher Murphy about whether guns should be allowed in or around public schools. “I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” she answered. When Murphy, whose state saw the worst school shooting in U.S. history at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown in 2012, expressed incredulity, DeVos noted a school in Wyoming that she heard about from Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi that is protected by a grizzly bear fence. “I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming,” she said. “I think probably there, I would imagine, that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

On Detroit: Much of the criticism of DeVos has focused on her influence on schools in Michigan, where she has advocated for the dismantling of the Detroit school district and against new regulations for the state’s charter schools. After Democratic senators confronted her with a long list of unfavorable statistics about the quality of both district and charter schools in Detroit, DeVos insisted that charter schools in Detroit are doing well, especially given the high percentage of Detroit children who live in poverty. “Actually, I believe that there’s a lot that has gone right in Detroit and in Michigan with regard to charter schools,” she said, citing a study that found Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers. (But they all struggle: Just 10 of Detroit’s 200 district and charter schools had test scores in the top half across Michigan.)

She called suggestions that policies she’s promoted have shielded charter schools from consequences from poor performance “false news,” since 122 charter schools across the state have been shut down for poor performance. Still, the state has no restrictions on how many charter schools can open, and groups with long records of allowing low-performing charter schools to stay open are not prevented from opening new ones.

On how student progress should be measured: What should matter more, that a third-grader who arrived at school at a first-grade reading level is now at second-grade level, or that the student failed the third-grade test? That question has been at the core of the debate over how schools are evaluated in recent years. But when Minnesota Sen. Al Franken put the question to her, DeVos didn’t have a quick answer, stumbling a bit over the definitions of growth and proficiency. (Franken didn’t give her a chance to follow up.)

On her wealth and conflicts: Like many of Trump’s other wealthy Cabinet nominees (and Trump himself), DeVos has faced questions over conflicts of interest she could face in office. DeVos said she intends to take a salary of $1, and to forgo a tax loophole that can help wealthy nominees save money. “I will not be conflicted, period. I commit that to you all,” she said. But some pieces of information are still missing, because the Office of Government Ethics has not completed DeVos’s ethics agreement.

DeVos did offer one new tidbit: that she was listed as a board member of her mother’s foundation on federal tax forms because of “a clerical error.” The foundation gave to Focus on the Family, which has supported gay conversion therapy. DeVos said she doesn’t support that work.

On the Office of Civil Rights: Under Obama, the Education Department stepped up enforcement of civil rights policies and issued guidance on issues affecting transgender students. Some civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale back the Office of Civil Rights. Those concerns increased after Politico reported that DeVos had spoken about the office with Republican Sen. James Lankford, who is skeptical about its work to ensure transgender students have certain protections in schools. A Lankford aide said he and DeVos had talked of “reining in” that office. In Tuesday’s hearings, DeVos said she had not used those words.

On violence against women: Like attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, DeVos was asked whether touching women without their consent — as Trump bragged about doing in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape released last fall — is sexual assault. And like Sessions, she said yes.

On other education policy issues: What does DeVos think about academic standards, teacher evaluations, how to improve struggling schools, segregation — the issues that most affect the way students and teachers across the country experience school on a daily basis? We still don’t know, because DeVos wasn’t asked about them.

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.