HELP Committee Sends DeVos Nomination for Education Secretary to Full Senate
HELP Committee Sends DeVos Nomination for Education Secretary to Full Senate

January 2017

On January 31, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted 12-11 along party lines to approve the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary to be considered by the full Senate.  The vote comes after a contentious confirmation hearing held on January 17.

DeVos previously chaired the American Federation for Children, and has used her wealth to support charter schools in Detroit.  Republican Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted in favor of advancing her nomination while stating concerns about DeVos. Collins questioned the adequacy of DeVos’s knowledge of federal special education while Murkowski questioned DeVos’s commitment to public education.

Democrats also objected to the speed of the vetting process for DeVos. Unlike the chairs of other committees, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) limited each member to one five-minute round of questions. The chairman and ranking member were permitted a follow-up question. Other members of the committee were invited to submit additional questions in writing.

During the January 17 hearing, senators asked DeVos questions on a variety of educational issues, ranging from her intention to apply guidance on Title IX regarding sexual assaults on college campuses and what she has learned from the performance of charter schools in Michigan to her vision for addressing and college affordability. DeVos also fielded questions regarding accountability, and whether different standards should be applied to public schools and charter schools. Other questions focused on her wealth. Several HELP Committee members noted that the Office of Government Ethics had yet to clear her paperwork prior to the hearing.

Democratic committee members expressed concern that DeVos lacked experience in and knowledge of education policy that she would oversee as secretary. In response to questions from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) regarding whether DeVos would support the same accountability measures for students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools, she stated that she would let the states decide. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) followed up to clarify whether she was aware that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a federal law, with DeVos responding that she may have been confused. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) also expressed concerns about her not understanding the difference between using growth or proficiency models to assess academic outcomes.

Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) asked DeVos for an assurance that she would apply evidence-based approaches to education. Her response was simply that she looked forward to working with him on this issue. This response begs the question of whether DeVos would use research to guide her decisions as secretary.

In her written response to Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-WA) question about how the Education Department can and should use evidence, data, and evaluation to inform policy and drive continuous improvement in federally-funded education programs, DeVos responded: “To be responsible with taxpayer dollars and ensure that our programs are effective, responsive and impactful, we should use reliable data, strong research, and rigorous evaluations.”

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