Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee grilled Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos this evening on everything from charter vs. public schools to LGBT rights and protecting college students from fraud, to her personal fortune and gay conversion therapy.
DeVos was also asked if she thought President-elect Trump’s “grab them by the p—y” comment would equate to sexual assault in one of America’s schools.
For the record, her answer was “yes.”
Meanwhile, committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) fought off Democrats’ demands for a second round of questioning.
DeVos’ confirmation hearing was billed as being one of the most contentious that Trump administration nominees would face.
It did not disappoint.
Alexander, a former secretary of Education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, promised there would be an agreement with DeVos on how to resolve potential conflicts of interest before a final confirmation vote was held on her nomination.
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DeVos’ first Senate confirmation hearing, scheduled for Jan. 11, was delayed because her ethics review had not been completed. Nor were her finances made public. Neither had been accomplished by the beginning of today’s hearing.
Democrats on the Senate panel were not satisfied by their chairman’s promise of full disclosure before their vote on DeVos, scheduled for Jan. 24.
Responding to Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) complaint that the committee didn’t have the proper ethics investigation paperwork before the hearing, DeVos said, “Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked if DeVos thought she would have been nominated to be the nation’s Education secretary if her family hadn’t contributed some $200 million to the GOP.
“I do think there would be that possibility. I have worked very hard to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make a decision on behalf of their children,” said DeVos.
But that was nothing compared to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). He argued with DeVos over the difference between the terms “growth” and “proficiency” in education.
When DeVos’ answer didn’t satisfy him, Franken wondered aloud, “Does she have the breadth and depth of knowledge that we should expect from someone who has this very important job?”
Franken also accused DeVos and her family of a history of opposition to LGBT rights and support for conversion therapy, the idea that gay people can be cured of their homosexuality.
“I have never believed in [conversion therapy],” DeVos said, “and I have always believed in LGBT rights.”
DeVos also battled back against Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who said problems with charter schools in Detroit were due to a lack of accountability – something fostered, he said, by the DeVos family.
“There is a lot that has gone right in Detroit charter schools,” DeVos said, “and the idea that there is very little accountability is just wrong. The reality today is students are getting three months on average more learning than counterparts in public schools.”
Referring to the problem many college graduates are having paying back their student loans, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked DeVos if she had ever managed a bank or managed a trillion-dollar or even a billion-dollar loan program – or participated in a student loan program.
DeVos told the panel that neither she nor her husband, nor their children, had to borrow money to attend college.
Warren also took issue with DeVos’ refusal to be specific about how she would attack “waste, fraud and abuse” on the part of for-profit colleges that take advantage of students – and gave the defunct Trump University as an example.
“Swindlers and crooks are out there doing backflips when they hear an answer like this,” Warren said. “…I don’t see how you can be the secretary of Education.”
A continuing thread throughout the hearing was a disagreement between Democrats who wanted a chance to ask follow-up questions of DeVos and Alexander, who said there was no precedent for a second round of questioning.
“I have already agreed to move the hearing back by one week,” said Alexander. “This has been a three-hour-and-10-minute hearing now, and I don’t think it’s fair to treat a Republican nominee any different than we treated an Obama administration nominee.”
Alexander also pointed out that DeVos had offered to meet privately with Democrats in December, but none of them seemed interested.
“We will not go forward with a vote next Tuesday until her ethics agreement letter is available to you,” Alexander assured the committee.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) might have made the understatement of the night when he introduced DeVos to the committee by admitting her nomination had been controversial. But he chalked that up to her history of not accepting the “status quo” in public education.
“We need a change agent, a leader who has one big goal that every child, regardless of ZIP code, deserves a world-class education,” Lieberman, a former vice-presidential candidate, said.
“It is in our national interest to give her a chance to change the status quo,” he added.