Betsy DeVos: Profit or altruism?

We have twice looked at the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education.  This time, we look at her confirmation hearing, ethics report, and some of the things we learned, and did not learn, about her intentions to lead the Department of Education.

First, we clearly learned that Republicans in the Senate are intent on getting this nominee, and other nominees, through the hearing process and on to confirmation votes.  The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a confirmation hearing on January 17th.  Each Senator was allowed 5 minutes to question DeVos.  In spite of a chorus of calls to allow more time for questioning, Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander flatly refused.

Ethics

On Friday, January 20th, three days after the hearing, the Office of Government Ethics released DeVos’s financial paperwork and disclosures. Here we learned, not surprisingly, that Betsy DeVos’s interest in education extends beyond altruism to profit.  The Secretary nominee has a myriad of direct and indirect investments that are, or could represent, conflicts of interest.  This includes a stake in companies and products that provide services for both K-12 and higher education, including a student debt collecting firm that contracts with the U.S. Department of Education.  DeVos has pledged to divest from over 100 different interests within 90 days, if confirmed.

We can expect a committee vote on her confirmation on January 31.

So, what did we learn from the DeVos hearing?

  • First, and perhaps most outrageously, Betsy DeVos does not support schools as gun free zones. When asked by Senator Murphy, “Do you think guns should be in or around schools?”, DeVos actually used grizzly bears as a reason that guns should not be outlawed in schools.   Grizzly bears.  DeVos pointed to a single school in Wyoming that might need to protect students from grizzly bears as a reason that all schools should allow guns.

Watch the guns in schools video clip:

 

  • Second, DeVos is willing to evade, then evade again on the topic of accountability in schools. When asked by Senator Kaine if ALL schools, traditional, charter, or private, that receive taxpayer funds should be held to the same accountability standards, DeVos answered: “I support accountability.”  However, when asked about whether it should be the same accountability across types of schools, she evaded four separate times with this same answer.  Ultimately, she had to admit that she does not agree with equal accountability standards.

Watch the “I support accountability” video clip:

 

  • Third, DeVos either was completely lacking in a fundamental understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or she used evasion to her own benefit. When asked by Senator Hassan about enforcement of IDEA, DeVos said that states should have rights to enforce it as they see fit.  When told that IDEA is a federal law, DeVos claimed confusion.  While many have said this shows her lack of knowledge, we might question whether or not this “confusion” was really an attempt to evade the real answer about her willingness to enforce federal law.

Watch the IDEA video clip:

 

There were other moments in the DeVos hearing that caused concerns.  In an exchange with Senator Franken, she clearly was unwilling or unable to discuss the different ways to measure student academic growth.  In an exchange with Senator Warren about protecting students from waste, fraud and abuse at for-profit colleges, DeVos would only say that she would be “vigilant.”  When pressed, she offered that she would review existing rules – not enforce them.  When Senator Bennett asked in detail about the documented failure of Detroit schools, which fall under DeVos’ s own Michigan Model, she simply said that “a lot has gone right.”

Overall, her fundamental lack of knowledge and/or willingness to dodge issues was jaw dropping.  We continue to believe that Betsy DeVos is a dangerous and wrong choice for a position that must ensure the best education for ALL of America’s children.


Lisa Romero is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University Sacramento.

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