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Senate panel head pushes vote on DeVos

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The head of the Senate education committee doubled down on his plan to hold a vote next week on the nomination of Michigan’s Betsy DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education, despite calls from Democrats for more time to question her.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said Democrats’ reasons for opposing DeVos are not valid, and that they should confirm her, even if they disagree with her support for taxpayer-funded vouchers following children to private schools.

“This is not a new or subversive idea,” said Alexander, who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.

“In addition to that, Mrs. DeVos has testified before our committee that she does not favor — as much as she supports the idea of giving parents choices of schools — she does not favor Washington, D.C., telling Arizona or Tennessee or any other state that they must do that.”

Alexander suggested that education vouchers began with the 1944 G.I. Bill that directed federal dollars to support veterans’ education at accredited colleges and can also be found in another form in the Pell grant program assisting lower-income students attend college.

“I haven’t heard any senator in this body stand up and say, ‘Well, let’s cancel the Pell grants because it’s tax money following students to a college. Let’s cancel $100 billion in student loans this year because it means tax dollars following someone to Harvard or to Notre Dame or to Yeshiva,’ ” Alexander said.

“No one is going to say that. Then why do they get so exercised about that when it has to do with our schools?”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, spoke after Alexander on the Senate floor, urging him not to “jam” DeVos through without sufficient time for her to address Democrats’ outstanding questions.

“Ms. DeVos gave what has been widely seen as ill-informed, confused and concerning responses to serious and reasonable questions,” said Murray, referring to DeVos’ committee hearing a week ago.

“She refused to rule out slashing investments in, or privatizing, public schools. She was confused that federal law provides protections for students with disabilities. She actually argued that guns needed to be allowed in schools across the country to ‘protect from grizzlies.’ ”

Murray said she is also concerned that DeVos wouldn’t commit to “actually enforcing federal law protecting women and girls in our schools.”

DeVos testified that sexual assault at “anytime, any place” is a problem but demurred when Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, asked if she 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 at her hearing.

Murray said Democrats continue to have “serious questions” related to DeVos’ financial disclosures and agreement with the Office of Government Ethics, which reviews the financial holdings of government officials for potential conflicts of interest.

DeVos, a billionaire from the Grand Rapids area, has said she plans to divest 102 separate assets — “many of them investments in education companies that Democrats were unable to ask her about,” Murray said.

DeVos has pledged to not participate “personally or substantially” in matters in which she or family members have a direct financial interest; however, she intends to keep her position as co-trustee of a set of family trusts that benefit her and her husband, Dick, forgoing any fees for her services.

Murray renewed her request for a second hearing for DeVos, in part so DeVos may address her investments in companies she would continue to own that could be directly affected by the Education Department and the Trump administration’s agenda, according to Democrats.

DeVos spokesman Greg McNeilly said by email that DeVos has met all legal requirements under federal law to be deemed “free and clear” of potential conflicts. “There are no issues left unaddressed,” he said.

“All issues raised by rabid partisans who are more intent on stopping change than governing are nothing more than distractions from an educational establishment that has failed students while profiting handsomely,” McNeilly said.

In a related Tuesday development, Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, said he won’t support the nomination of DeVos. Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate.

“Mrs. DeVos’ resume contains no experience in public education at any level — not as a teacher, not as an administrator, not as a student or parent, not as a school board member and not even as a borrower of public loans for college,” Peters said in a floor speech.

At last week’s hearing, Democrats repeatedly asked Alexander for more time with DeVos, but he declined a second round of questioning.

Alexander also denied the request for a second hearing, noting that DeVos’ 31/2-hour hearing went 11/2 hours longer than the hearings for either education secretary nominated by former President Barack Obama.

DeVos is answering 837 written questions submitted by committee Democrats, compared with 81 questions combined that Republicans submitted in writing to Obama’s two secretaries of education, according to the committee.

Alexander postponed by a week the committee’s vote on whether to recommend DeVos to the full Senate. The committee is scheduled to vote at 10 a.m. Jan. 31.


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