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Dems wary of DeVos’ possible conflict of interest

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Supporters praised education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos of west Michigan as a change agent on Tuesday, but Democrats remained wary of her lack of experience as an educator and the potential conflicts of interest posed by her extensive investments and financial holdings.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said he believes DeVos’ views are in the mainstream of public opinion, and that her critics’ are not.

Betsy DeVos speaks during her confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.

“Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side. She has dedicated her life to helping children, especially low-income children, have the opportunity to attend a good school,” Alexander said.

But Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s ranking Democrat from Washington state, questioned whether DeVos’ wealth would pose problems for the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

“As a billionaire with hundreds, if not thousands, of investments made through complex financial instruments — many of which are made in ways that are not transparent and hard to track — you need to make it very clear how you will be avoiding conflicts of interest should you be confirmed,” said Murray, a former preschool teacher and school board member.

“That goes for your investments, as well as the massive web of investments made by your immediate family.”

Murray was disappointed the committee was holding the hearing before the Office of Government Ethics completed its review of DeVos’ financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest. Murray also criticized DeVos for declining to provide three years of tax returns, as requested by the committee.

DeVos sought to assure the senators that anything deemed a conflict of interest would be divested. She and her husband, Dick, would also discontinue their political contributions if she is confirmed by the Senate to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

“Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted,” DeVos said.

Support from Republicans

The 59-year-old school choice advocate also said her family’s investments in a student loan financing company and a chain of for-profit online charter schools are in the process of being divested. She added that she would only accept $1 as her salary.

Murray also raised concerns about DeVos spending her time and fortune fighting to “privatize” public education and gut investments in public schools, referring to DeVos’ support for charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers that parents of students may use at private schools.

Alexander countered by arguing that DeVos deserves credit, not criticism, for using her fortune to support her ideas.

“Would her critics be happier if she had spent her time and her money trying to deny children from low-income families the choices of schools that wealthy families have instead of trying to help them?” said Alexander, a former education secretary for President George H.W. Bush.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted that while she and DeVos don’t agree on all issues, she has no doubts that DeVos “cares deeply” about educating all kids.

“Any suggestion made that your nomination is linked to your political donations is really unfair and unwarranted,” Collins said, referring to remarks by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate.

In her testimony, DeVos pledged that she’d be a “strong advocate for great public schools,” while supporting parents’ right to seek alternative education options for their children.

DeVos explained her choice philosophy — that there’s no one-size-fits-all model of learning, and that parents embrace options such as charter and magnet schools, as well as religious, virtual and home schooling.

“Too many parents are denied access to the full range of options … choices that many of us here in this room have exercised for our own children,” said DeVos, who herself attended and sent her own children to private schools in Michigan.

“Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children?”

DeVos acknowledged that most U.S. students will continue to attend public schools, and insisted she is not seeking to undermine or erode them.

“But 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,” DeVos said. “It’s really pretty simple.”

She pushed back against the suggestion by Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colorado, that failing Detroit charter schools are protected from scrutiny, and that charter transparency and oversight are lacking in Michigan.

“I believe a lot has gone right in Detroit and Michigan,” DeVos said, noting that 122 charter schools have closed in Michigan since 1994. “The notion that there’s no accountability is ... false news.”

DeVos, who grew up in Holland, said her greatest educational influence was a public school teacher named Elsa Prince — her mother.

The former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party also said that, if confirmed, she would work with Congress to ensure the bipartisan 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act will be implemented as lawmakers intended. She vowed to eliminate “burdensome” federal regulations, returning more control to states and school boards.

She pledged to work with Congress and stakeholders to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. DeVos called for action on escalating debt that can take decades for some graduates to pay off.

Dems go on offensive

Sanders pressed DeVos on whether public colleges and universities should be tuition-free, which he proposed in his presidential campaign.

“Senator, I think that’s a really interesting idea,” DeVos replied. “We have to consider the fact that nothing in life is free, and somebody’s going to pay for it.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, brought up the $25 million that Trump agreed last month to pay to resolve lawsuits over his Trump University real estate seminars.

Warren asked DeVos to commit to enforcing rules to ensure no for-profit colleges receive federal funds unless they are preparing their students for gainful employment and “not cheating.”

“I will commit to ensuring that institutions which receive federal funds are actually serving their students well,” DeVos said, adding that she would review the “gainful employment” rule for effectiveness.

“I do not understand how you cannot be sure about enforcing” existing rules, Warren said. “Swindlers and crooks out there are doing back flips when they hear an answer like this. If confirmed, you will be the top cop on the beat.”

School-gun issue raised

Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Connecticut, asked DeVos if she thinks guns have a place in and around schools. DeVos said she thinks that’s a matter best left to states and locales to decide.

“You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?” Murphy said.

DeVos referred to an earlier exchange with Republican Sen. Mike Enzi about a school in Wyoming.

“I would imagine there’s probably a gun in that school to protect against potential grizzlies,” DeVos said.

“If Trump moves forward to his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?” said Murphy, who represents a state where 20 school children and six adults in Newton were shot dead by a 20-year-old gunman in December 2012.

“I will support what the president does,” DeVos said. “If the question is around gun violence and the results of that, senator, please know my heart bleeds and is broken for those families who have lost any individual to gun violence.”

DeVos’ family, including her sons and daughters, sat behind her during the hearing on Capitol Hill, where she was introduced by Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, a member of the committee, and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent. Her husband, Dick , who unsuccessfully ran for Michigan governor in 2006, also was there.

Some spectators hoping to watch DeVos’ hearing had to filter into an overflow room across the hall. Four young women who did secure seats in the main hearing room wore orange #DearBetsy T-shirts from groups representing sexual assault victims.

Last week, they were among those on Twitter who launched a hash-tag campaign calling on DeVos to ensure robust enforcement of Title IX at the U.S. Department of Education.

DeVos said sexual assault at “anytime, any place” is a problem, but she demurred when Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, asked if DeVos would commit to upholding a 2011 guidance from the Department of Education urging campuses to better investigate and adjudicate allegations of sexual assault.

“It would be premature for me to do that today,” DeVos said.

Regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, she said she embraces equality and believes “every student should have the assurance of a safe and discrimination-free” educational environment.

She suggested senators who asked about DeVos donations to anti-LGBT groups were mistaking donations made by her family members and donations from 15 to 20 years ago.

Democrats complained that committee members were only allowed one round of questions, five minutes each, and they repeatedly asked Alexander to permit more questions. Alexander said he was following the process used for education nominees of Democratic President Barack Obama.

The committee will vote on DeVos’ nomination Jan. 24 if her ethics office agreement is complete by Friday, Alexander said. If approved, her nomination would proceed to the full Senate for a vote.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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