Betsy DeVos Appears Before Senate Education Committee In Confirmation Hearing

Jan 17, 2017
Originally published on January 17, 2017 5:28 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Education Department took the hot seat today for her Senate confirmation hearing. Here is billionaire Betsy DeVos making her case to the Senate Committee on Education.

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BETSY DEVOS: 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. The answer is local control and listening to parents, students and teachers.

SIEGEL: DeVos has strong Republican support, but she fielded some tough questions from the committee's Democrats. For more on the hearing and DeVos' record, I'm joined by Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team. And Cory, let's start with what we know about DeVos' education philosophy and why that's put her at odds with so many Democrats.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Sure, Robert. She's been scathing in her criticism of the government's ability to really improve America's education system. And she believe deeply instead in the power of the free market to do that. She has opposed teachers' unions. She in an outspoken supporter of school choice, specifically public charter schools.

But also perhaps most controversially, she's a big supporter of vouchers which let parents pay for tuition at private schools and even religious schools using public school dollars. And that led to this exchange this evening - earlier this evening with Democratic Senator Patty Murray.

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PATTY MURRAY: Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?

DEVOS: Senator, thanks for that question. I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students.

TURNER: DeVos went on to say that not all schools serve the needs of the kids who are assigned to them but that she hopes she can find some common ground with those who disagree with her views on school choice, to which Murray said this.

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MURRAY: I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education.

DEVOS: Well, I guess I wouldn't characterize it in that way.

MURRAY: Well, (laughter) OK.

SIEGEL: Now, Cory, Congress passed a bipartisan federal education law just over a year ago. Even if DeVos wanted to create a kind of national voucher plan, could she actually do that?

TURNER: Certainly not easily, and this came up in the hearing tonight, Robert. It was brought up by actually one of her strongest supporters, a Republican, a former education secretary himself and the committee's chairman, Lamar Alexander. He made clear Congress had debated vouchers when they were debating the big federal education law just over a year ago, and they decided not to go there. So he asked DeVos if she would still try to push a voucher mandate onto states.

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DEVOS: No. I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation but certainly any kind of mandate from within the department.

SIEGEL: Now, Cory, I want you to talk briefly about DeVos' financial holdings, which were also a topic at the hearing. What was said about that?

TURNER: Yeah, well, Democrats were clearly frustrated that the hearing was being held before the Office of Government Ethics, which looks into potential conflicts of interest, could actually finish its review of DeVos' vast holdings.

A spokesperson for Chairman Alexander said even though the hearing was still held, the committee will not vote on DeVos until it's received her paperwork from the Ethics Office. Senator Murray asked DeVos about what she will do if that Ethics review turns up conflicts, to which DeVos said this.

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DEVOS: Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted - period.

TURNER: It was a definitive answer, but Democrats still weren't happy about the timing of the hearing.

SIEGEL: OK, that's Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team. Cory, thanks.

TURNER: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.