WASHINGTON >> In a sometimes contentious confirmation hearing, education secretary pick Betsy DeVos pledged Tuesday not to dismantle public education and said she wasn’t selected for the job simply because of her wealthy family’s generous contributions to the Republican Party.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pension Committee, asked DeVos point blank to pledge that she would not seek to privatize public schools or take money away from them.
DeVos, who has spent more than two decades advocating for charter schools and school choice, promised to work to address “the needs of all parents and students.”
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, expressed confidence that DeVos is an “excellent” choice for the job. “She is on the side of our children,” he said.
But as other Republicans praised President-elect Donald Trump’s pick, Democrats grilled her on a range of issues from child care to students with disabilities and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.
Asked outright by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont if she got the job because of her family’s political contributions, DeVos said: “As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility. I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years.”
On tuition-free public colleges and universities, DeVos said: “I think we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody is going to pay for it.”
She skirted Sanders’ question on whether she would support making child care free or much more affordable for low-income families as is the case in many countries around the world, saying only that she feels strongly about “parents having an opportunities for child care for their children.”
“But it’s not a question of opportunity,” Sanders fired back, raising his voice. “It’s a question of being able to afford it!”
Responding to fierce criticism from teachers unions that she is working against public education, DeVos told the committee that she will be “a strong advocate for great public schools.”
“But,” she added, “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.”
Murray said she was “extremely disappointed” that DeVos has not yet finalized her financial and ethics disclosures ahead of the hearing. She also asked whether DeVos will divest herself of any family business enterprises that may represent a conflict of interest in her job, including one student loan refinancing company.
“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted. Period,” DeVos said.
DeVos, 59, also said she will seek to address rising higher education costs and massive student debt, but also advance trade and vocational schools as well as community colleges because “craftsmanship is not a fallback — but a noble pursuit.”
Another priority for DeVos will be weakening “burdensome” federal regulations and giving local communities greater control over education policies.
“President-elect Trump and I know it won’t be Washington, D.C., that unlocks our nation’s potential, nor a bigger bureaucracy, tougher mandates or a federal agency,” DeVos said. “The answer is local control and listening to parents, students and teachers.”
DeVos, the wife of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has spent more than two decades advocating for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, as well as promoting conservative religious values.
In a letter addressed to the committee, 38 prominent education groups and teachers’ organizations expressed concern that DeVos’ track record bodes ill for public education.
“Over the course of her career as a major campaign contributor, soft-money donor and lobbyist, DeVos has used her considerable wealth to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students,” the letter said.
LGBT groups also have protested Trump’s choice of DeVos, saying she has funded conservative religious groups that promote what they consider to be traditional family values, including one organization that supports conversion therapy — counseling of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.
In an apparent response to that criticism, DeVos said in her statement, “Every child in America deserves to be in a safe environment that is free from discrimination.”
DeVos supporters, meanwhile, applauded her nomination. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, said that American public education “is in deep crisis,” with 35 countries outranking American schools in math and 20 in reading.
“I believe Betsy DeVos has the talent, commitment and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools and deliver the promise of opportunity that excellent education provides, and I support her nomination as U.S. secretary of education,” Moskowitz said in a statement.