Sparring intensifies on DeVos’ credentials

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Ahead of her Senate confirmation hearing next week, sparring has intensified over the credentials of Education Secretary-designee Betsy DeVos — a choice advocate from West Michigan who has come under fire for her lack of experience as an educator or administrator.

Critics and supporters alike weighed in this week in droves, including teachers unions rallying their members to call their senators in opposition. Organizations representing sexual assault survivors launched a hashtag campaign, #DearBetsy, on Twitter, calling on DeVos to ensure robust enforcement of Title IX at the U.S. Department of Education.

From Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder led a supportive letter this week signed by 18 GOP governors who say DeVos is an “inspired choice” who would streamline the federal education bureaucracy and return authority back to states and local school boards.

“We look forward to partnering with Betsy DeVos to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her potential in the classroom,” the governors wrote.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was to hold its DeVos hearing Wednesday, but changed it to 5 p.m. Jan. 17 “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule,” according to a joint statement by Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington.

In a statement to The Detroit News, Alexander said postponing the hearing would not alter plans for the committee to vote on DeVos’ nomination Jan. 24.

The postponement came a day after Democrats urged Republican leaders to hold off on hearings for cabinet nominees until the Office of Government Ethics completed its review of nominees’ financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest.

DeVos, the billionaire businesswoman and GOP mega donor from the Grand Rapids area, submitted her financial disclosure paperwork to that office last month, but it is still under review. DeVos has passed her FBI background check, according to Alexander’s office.

An aide to Murray said the senator “is hopeful that this additional time will allow Ms. DeVos to complete the required ethics paperwork and in time for the Office of Government Ethics to submit it to the HELP Committee before her hearing, just as every single one of President Obama’s nominees did and as Leader McConnell demanded eight years ago.”

A spokesman for President-elect Donald Trump said Tuesday that the hearing’s delay “has everything to do with the Senate schedule” and the time constraints of senators.

Regarding her disclosures to the Office of Government Ethics, DeVos “submitted all that information and paperwork early,” and “she looks forward to a swift confirmation,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on a call.

DeVos practices for hearing

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the new hearing schedule for Trump’s nominees is a “good first step,” but that senators need adequate time to prepare, and that nominees’ paperwork needs to be finalized.

“This proposed cabinet is unlike any other. It is wealthier than any other. It has a complex web of corporate connections,” Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

“And, frankly, it is the most hard-right cabinet in its ideology. Quite different from the way President-elect Trump campaigned. The potential conflicts of interest for multimillionaires like Rex Tillerson or Betsy DeVos or Steve Mnuchin are enormous.”

DeVos and other Trump nominees have spent more than 70 hours in mock hearings to practice answering questions from senators, according to the Trump transition team.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, wrote to DeVos this week, previewing what she and other Democrats are likely to focus on in the hearing.

“There is no precedent for an Education Department secretary with your lack of experience in public education,” Warren wrote.

“While past nominees for Secretary of Education have served as teachers, school system leaders and governors, you have held no such position. As such, your nomination provides the Senate and the public with few clues about your actual policy positions on a host of critical issues.”

Given DeVos’ support for taxpayer-funded vouchers that students may use at private schools, Warren wants to know whether DeVos would commit to opposing any voucher program that results in a net funding loss for a public education system or in increased racial or socioeconomic segregation.

Until recently, DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman, chaired the American Federation for Children, an organization devoted to expanding school of choice options across the country, including school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs, and virtual and charter schools.

In Michigan, DeVos has backed the expansion of charter schools. In recent years, her strategy has focused on bankrolling the elections of choice-friendly lawmakers around the country, then helping them draft and enact laws.

Critics, supporters spar

Critics such as the American Federation of Teachers warn that she will undermine public schools and upend the fragile bipartisan consensus on the federal government’s role in education, as represented by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a Monday speech, AFT President Randi Weingarten called DeVos the “most anti-public education nominee in the history of the department,” who is “poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America.”

Ed Patru, spokesman for a group of DeVos allies, says the labor unions oppose her because they foresee a loss of power and turf under the Trump administration.

Patru says DeVos has the support of millions of parents, “Republicans and Democrats alike, who are fed up with business as usual in education and are clamoring for a public policy shift that puts kids first, rather than the education establishment.”

The DeVos family, heirs to the Amway Corp. fortune, is among the largest donors to the Michigan Republican Party, GOP officeholders and candidates.

In the questionnaire that DeVos filled out for the Senate education committee, she disclosed five years’ worth of political donations totaling more than $5 million. She also stated her membership in the American Opportunity Alliance, a group of major Republican donors led by New York billionaire Paul Singer.

Liberal groups have called on GOP education committee senators to recuse themselves from voting on DeVos’ nomination if they accepted campaign donations from DeVos or her family members. Conservatives in turn have said committee Democrats should recuse themselves if they took contributions from teachers unions.

In her disclosures, DeVos said she would sever all connections with her current “employer, business firm, association or organization” if confirmed by the Senate. She indicated she would serve the full four-year term as education secretary, but that she intends to return to the family businesses in Michigan after completing her service.

DeVos noted she resigned in November as chair of the Windquest Group, the Grand Rapids investment firm she started with husband, Dick. She also stepped down from the couple’s foundation, which recently disclosed $11.6 million in donations in 2015, including $357,000 to education reform causes.

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