Trump's Education Secretary Pick Betsy DeVos Grilled on Public Education

PHOTO: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
WATCH Trump's Education Secretary Pick Betsy DeVos Grilled on Public Education

President-elect Donald Trump's pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, was grilled by Democratic senators in a Tuesday evening hearing on her views on public education and her background as a wealthy Republican donor.

Ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray asked DeVos if she would commit to not allowing funding that's designated for public schools to flow to private options -- one of the leading concerns of DeVos' critics -- and DeVos did not offer a direct assurance.

DeVos instead responded by saying she would commit to addressing the needs of "all parents and students" and noted that "not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them."

"I take that is not being willing to commit to not privatize public schools?" Murray followed up.

"I guess I would not characterize it in that way," DeVos said.

DeVos has supported vouchers and charter schools over several decades of advocacy on education reform in her home state of Michigan. While DeVos' admirers revere her as an effective disrupter who has put her own money into supporting school choice policies, her critics tie her to the checkered track record of Michigan's charter schools and see her advocacy for vouchers as a threat to public education.

Some of the greatest displays of tension in the hearing were not between DeVos and the senators asking the questions but rather among the committee members themselves. Democrats repeatedly complained about Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander limiting each senator to 5-minutes of questioning, with Democrats accusing the chairman of rushing the confirmation hearing.

Sen. Al Franken grew agitated in his line of questioning of DeVos, at one point interrupting her when she appeared to not fully understand his question asking about where she fell on the debate between whether proficiency or growth is a better measure of student achievement.

"It surprises me that you don't know this issue. And Mr. Chairman, I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions," Franken said.

At another point, he asked her whether she believes in conversion therapy, citing cases in her family's history of supporting groups that have promoted the use of such therapy for gay or lesbian individuals.

"I have never believed in that," DeVos said. Asked again about the issue, DeVos said that she "embrace[s] equality" and suggested that the senators might be referring to donations other members of her family may have made in the distant past that do not represent her views.

In her opening remarks, DeVos affirmed her belief in increasing school choice in the nation's educational systems while pledging to be "a strong advocate for great public schools."

"If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, 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," DeVos said.

Democrats had sought to delay today's hearing until the Office of Government Ethics completes its full ethics review of the wealthy nominee, a sentiment that ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray made known in her opening remarks.

"I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics," Murray said. "When President Obama entered the White House, Republicans insisted on having an ethics letter in hand before moving to a hearing. In fact, Leader McConnell wrote a letter to Leader Reid making that explicit demand—an ethics letter in hand, with time to review—and an FBI background check—before a hearing was held. So I am extremely concerned. And I can only hope that cutting corners and rushing nominees through will not be the new norm."

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, sought to assure the committee that senators will have several days to review the OGE review of DeVos prior to a vote on her confirmation.

DeVos also told the committee that she is committed to making sure "an ethics agreement resolved and reached" in the process of her confirmation and resolve any conflicts of interest that her financial holdings as a private citizen pose.

She also said she plans to limit her government salary to 1 dollar "to be official" but that she doesn't "want to take a salary."