How ‘Mainstream’ Outsider Betsy DeVos Plans to Lead the US Department of...

Policy and Government

How ‘Mainstream’ Outsider Betsy DeVos Plans to Lead the US Department of Education

By Tony Wan     Jan 18, 2017

How ‘Mainstream’ Outsider Betsy DeVos Plans to Lead the US Department of Education

It took about 40 minutes before Betsy DeVos got a chance to say a word. But after the customary opening statements, the line and tone of questioning for the incoming administration’s nominated Secretary of Education followed closely along party lines. Republican senators asked mostly for her opinions, prefaced by heaps of praise and enthusiasm for her work, especially with charter schools. Democratic counterparts probed for specific policy and action items, including whether she was trying to privatize public education through the widespread use of vouchers. Technology and innovation took a backseat.

Over the course of more than three hours on Jan. 17, DeVos (which rhymes with “boss”) sat before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee for her confirmation hearing to be the federal government’s next education chief. The grilling would have gone longer: Democratic senators asked for a second round of questions. HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) refused, noting that former Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s hearing lasted just over two hours.

Democrats had their reasons: As has been widely reported, DeVos, breaking tradition—but not the rule—was having her confirmation hearing before the Office of Government Ethics finished vetting her finances. Her replies to questions about specific plans—from ESSA implementation to protecting special needs students and whether guns belong on school campuses—could also frequently be paraphrased with five words: “I defer to the states.”

That refrain sat well with Republicans, who have long championed a small federal government. But it did little to assuage the concerns of Democrats, many of whom said they believe the proper role of the federal government is to actively safeguard the rights and opportunities of all learners.

In her opening remarks (published before the hearing), DeVos left little doubt about her guiding principles. “For me, it’s simple: I trust parents, and I believe in our children,” she said.

“If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools,” she continued. “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.” Among her exemplars of innovative schools was Acton Academy in Texas, which blends small classes, a Montessori ethos and technology. (Here’s our profile on Acton from 2013.)

A Mainstream Outsider?

Democratic senators did not hold back from hammering DeVos for her lack of experience running education institutions—or any bureaucracy, for that matter. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted that the nominee has never ran a bank or a billion-dollar program, nor has she taken out any student loans herself or for her children. That “the financial future of an entire generation is in your hands” should be concerning for all Americans, Warren warned.

To others, DeVos’ lack of experience is a plus. Former Conn. senator Joe Lieberman (once a Democrat, now an independent), who introduced DeVos to the committee, praised her discipline and organization, adding: “The fact that she doesn’t come from within the education establishment…[is today] one of the most important qualifications [anyone] could have for the job.”

Yet Republican fans also aimed to position DeVos as championing “mainstream” views. Committee chairman Alexander offered a stout defense of charter schools, rattling off stats from public opinion polls and reminding attendees that Democrats have supported these efforts in the past. The current Secretary of Education, John King, started a charter school, Alexander noted.

“I believe Mrs. DeVos is in the mainstream of public opinion on the best way to help children succeed, and her critics are outside of it,” he said. On several occasions he asked rhetorically: “So who’s in the mainstream here?”

Conflicts of Interest

DeVos’ billionaire status raised Democrats’ concerns over her ability to steer clear of conflicts of interest. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) lobbed a burning question in his characteristically blunt fashion: “If your family had not made hundreds of millions in political contributions [to the Republican party], would you be here today?”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) raised the fact that DeVos’ family has investment holdings in at least two educational companies: SoFi, a student loan provider, and K12 Inc., which operates virtual schools. DeVos affirmed that she will divest such holdings, and “anything that is deemed to be a conflict will not be a part of our investing.” She added: “I will not be engaged in political contributions, and my husband will not be either.”

Growth and Proficiency

One of the most striking questions came from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who asked DeVos for her opinions on the debate between measuring student achievement based on proficiency or growth. When she seemed confused by the question, Franken was dismayed: “It surprises me that you don’t know this issue...and this is a good reason for us to have more questions.”

The issue may seem narrow and specific, but how DeVos thinks about measuring learning outcomes could have implications for how schools and states are held accountable and evaluated on student performance. A proficiency approach is straightforward: It sets a specific end result—say, scoring 70 percent on a summative reading test—that all students must achieve in order to be considered “proficient.”

The growth approach, by contrast, takes into consideration how much a student knows at the start of the school year, usually measured through a pre-test. A growth goal may require that all students boost their post-test scores by 30 percent, regardless of where they started. That means even high-performing students are expected to improve. (The American Institute of Research offers a handy primer on the difference.)

Franken, for his part, is an advocate for growth measures: “With proficiency, teachers ignore the students at the top, and they ignore the kids at the bottom, who will never get to proficiency.”

Higher Education

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) described a postsecondary system in the throes of a “bachelor’s [degree] addiction” that may not be in the best interests of students. The question played to DeVos’ support of nontraditional programs for older learners. “Students need to have a full menu of options shared with them,” she stated. “They should know the opportunities and costs of technical schools, community colleges, apprenticeships...There’s really a wide variety of alternative pathways to a really great future.”

While acknowledging the need to explore ways to make higher education more affordable, DeVos remained uncommitted to Sen. Sanders’ proposal for free college: “There’s nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody will pay for it.”

DeVos also offered a lukewarm response to questions over how she would protect students from actors such as Trump University. “The individuals with whom I work in the department will ensure that federal monies are used appropriately,” which drew a retort from Sen. Warren that DeVos seems to be “subcontracting” that responsibility to others. She also told Warren that she would review current gainful employment rules that prevent federal dollars from going to colleges whose graduates struggle to find jobs.

#GrizzlyBear and Next Steps

Some of the questions seemed less intended to elicit heartfelt answers and more to reveal entangled interests.

For instance, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), whose constituents include the families from Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children were killed, asked whether guns have a place in school. “I think that’s best for states and locales to decide,” DeVos returned. She added a nod to rural states by observing that in Wyoming, “there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.” That’s a nod already making rounds across social media.

Sen. Alexander invited fellow colleagues—especially those dismayed at what they felt was a rushed proceeding—to submit follow-up questions in writing. In the meantime, he expects the Office of Government Ethics to finish its review of DeVos by Friday, which would give HELP committee (made up of 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats) time to review before voting next Tuesday to recommend DeVos’ appointment to the Senate. There, a simple majority is needed to confirm her nomination as the next Secretary of Education.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to accurately describe the process through which DeVos would be confirmed by the Senate.

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