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The threat to our schools

DeVos flunks first test

Secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos is grilled during her confirmation he Courtesy of C-SPAN Secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos is grilled during her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17.

In a contentious confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, made clear that she would use her position to promote private and charter schools at the expense of public schools. During the three hours of questioning, DeVos appeared not to know some basic facts about public education or the agency she hoped to lead.

The committee hearing took place on Jan. 17 at the behest of Republicans even though the U.S. Office of Government Ethics had not completed its investigation into the complicated tangle of investments of the nominee, a billionaire who has used her wealth to wield great influence over education policy in her home state of Michigan.

Asked by Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee, if she “would commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education,” DeVos responded evasively.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who is the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said that for charter schools in Denver, “without exception we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability. And as far as I can tell, Detroit has followed the opposite path.” He asked her what she had learned from the failures of the Detroit charter schools that she promoted and funded heavily.

DeVos, who lobbied Michigan lawmakers a year ago to kill a bill that would have prevented failing charter schools from expanding, disputed Bennet’s contention that Michigan lacks school accountability. “The notion that there hasn’t been accountability is just wrong,” she said. “It’s false news.”

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine spotlighted how DeVos wants taxpayer money for private and charter schools, but not the same accountability or legal obligations. Asked if she will “insist upon equal accountability” for all K–12 schools that receive public funding, she replied, “I support accountability.” “Equal accountability?” he asked. She repeated her first answer.

When Minnesota Sen. Al Franken asked DeVos to weigh in on the long debate in education circles about whether schools should be judged on “proficiency” or “growth,” DeVos appeared unfamiliar with the distinction, confusing the two in her answer. “I asked Betsy DeVos a very simple Q about student growth & proficiency,” Sen. Franken later tweeted. “Her lack of basic knowledge astounded me.”

DeVos also showed her lack of knowledge about special education. When Sen. Kaine asked DeVos if all schools should comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, DeVos replied that it is “an issue best left up to the states.” When New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan later pointed out that IDEA is a federal law, DeVos aid she might have confused it with something else.

But the most unexpected answer came when Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut asked her, “Do you think guns have any place in or around schools?” After she responded that it was “best left to locales and states to decide,” Murphy pressed her again on the topic. This time DeVos referred to rural schools in Wyoming. “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos said.

Murphy then asked, “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?” Her response: “I will support what the president-elect does.”

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican and the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, restricted the questioning to one round of five minutes for each panel member. He refused to extend the hearing despite protests from all the committee Democrats, who called his restrictions unprecedented.

“It suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny,” said Sen. Murphy.

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