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.

you say you want a resolution

Denver school board strikes back at Trump budget, Betsy DeVos’s school choice vision

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Take that, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

The Denver school board on Thursday approved two resolutions jabbing at President Trump’s first proposed education budget and Education Secretary DeVos’s vision of school reform.

Trump’s budget, the resolution says, would slash funding for a range of programs that help Denver students, including after-school programs, financial aid and Medicaid.

More notable was the DeVos-focused resolution, called “A Resolution in Support of School Choice – Emphasis on Equity and Accountability.”

DeVos started it, essentially, suggested at a Brookings Institution event that the district was not worthy of recognition as a school choice leader because private school vouchers aren’t offered.

The board is trying to draw a stark contrast between DeVos-style reforms and those carried out in Denver Public Schools over the past decade. It reads, in part:

“(T)he Board of Education does not support private school vouchers, which would encourage public education dollars to be spent in private schools that do not serve all students and that are not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, but believes instead that public dollars should be used to support and grow public schools, both district-run and charter, that are open to and serve all students.”

Board members were more pointed in their comments during Thursday’s board meeting.

“We are witnessing an assault on public education in this country, both through the budget and the appointment of what I think most of us would agree is the least qualified secretary of education ever appointed to that office,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Board member Happy Haynes said there “have been many who have been trying to associate the work we have done, the careful work that we have done” with the Republican administration.

“We’re not going to quit. We’re not quitters,” Haynes said. “ … It’s the time to double down, and that is what we are doing tonight on this resolution.”

The resolution also amounts to a pre-emptive strike ahead of what should be a contentious school board campaign. Opponents of the incumbent school board members are all but certain to try to link them to DeVos and Trump, not exactly popular figures in heavily Democratic Denver.

van wert alert

Four things to know about Van Wert, the tiny Ohio school district where DeVos and Weingarten will form an uneasy duo

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland in March.

A small city in rural Ohio will host a high-stakes education summit on Thursday when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits with the chief of a national teachers union who this week vowed to “educate” her.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten opposed DeVos after President Donald Trump nominated her for education secretary and called it “a sad day for children” when she was confirmed. But the political enemies still agreed to visit schools together once DeVos took office, and Weingarten chose Van Wert as their first stop.

Van Wert’s schools “do project-based learning, have grappled with rural poverty, schools that engage in children’s well-being, and that’s why we wanted her to see it,” Weingarten told Chalkbeat earlier this week, as her union launched a push to get DeVos to redirect federal funds toward public schools.

Here’s what you need to know about why the pair is headed to Van Wert and what they might see there.

  1. It’s in “Trump country.” That’s what Weingarten told Chalkbeat about why she selected the district for the visit, which marks the first in-person interaction between the two education leaders. Van Wert is just a 20 minute drive from Indiana, home of Vice President Mike Pence, and about an hour from Michigan, DeVos’s own home state. Nearly 80 percent of the 13,000 votes cast in the county in November’s election went to Trump, who did well in rural and post-industrial areas with weak economies and mostly white populations. More than 90 percent of Van Wert county residents are white, according to Census data.
  2. It also has a vibrant teachers union. The school choice foundation DeVos ran before becoming secretary was named American Federation for Children in a not-so-subtle critique of the teachers union Weingarten leads. That might not go over well with the 127 members of the AFT’s local chapter, which is led by Jeff Hood, a Van Wert physical education teacher. He told the Toledo Blade that he had asked Weingarten to bring DeVos to town. He told the newspaper: “I thought, ‘Here we go; Mrs. DeVos is now our secretary of education’ and you know the best way for me to join in the conversation is to see how I can personally invite her to come to Van Wert.”
  3. DeVos won’t be able to talk only about school choice. The education secretary made her career lobbying for choice, particularly to allow students to use public money to pay for private schools. Since becoming secretary, she’s pivoted to the topic frequently, praising leaders from Miami, New York, and Chicago for providing access to a range of school and course options. Her focus on choice won’t work in Van Wert, which unlike many urban districts does not have a range of options for families to choose from. The small city has only one elementary, one middle, and one traditional high school — along with a public alternative school for struggling students and a small Catholic elementary school.
  4. But Van Wert is home to one innovative option. At Vantage Career Center, high school juniors and seniors from the local district and a dozen others can learn industrial mechanics, welding, carpentry, and other skills while earning a diploma from their traditional school. According to a 2014 promotional video, the center is a 190,000-square-foot space that voters have helped fund, even during the recession. Forty percent of students who train at the center go on to college, while the majority head straight to jobs or apprenticeships in the community or the military, according to the center.