Senate panel OKs DeVos despite 2 GOP senators' concerns

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary now heads to the full Senate for consideration after the education committee voted 12-11 along party lines Tuesday to move it forward.

Committee members actually voted twice on DeVos after Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, cast a proxy vote on behalf of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican. After Democrats objected, citing committee rules, Alexander briefly recessed the proceeding until Hatch appeared in the hearing room to participate during a revote.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska expressed reservations about DeVos’ nomination to head the U.S. Department of Education. Both voted for DeVos in committee, so she could advance to the full Senate; however, they would not guarantee their support in a floor vote.

“I said it pretty clearly: ‘Don’t count on my vote,’” Murkowski told reporters after the panel vote.

Republicans have a two-seat edge in the Senate, so DeVos can afford to lose two GOP senators and receive confirmation through a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence.

Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, defended the Michigan billionaire as a qualified nominee who spent 30 years helping low-income students have the option of a better education. He said, despite Democrats’ complaints, DeVos complied with committee rules for disclosure, resolved potential conflicts of interest and answered 25 times more written questions than previous education nominees under President Barack Obama.

“Does anyone really expect President Trump to nominate someone from the education establishment to be education secretary?” Alexander said.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, said she was “extremely disappointed” that Alexander was proceeding with a vote, citing concerns about potential conflicts of interest and “missing information” in DeVos’ paperwork.

She also criticized DeVos’ performance two weeks ago at a committee hearing.

“She refused to rule out slashing investments in, or privatizing, public schools,” Murray said. “... She argued that guns needed to be allowed in schools across the country to ‘protect from grizzlies.’ And even though she was willing to say that President Trump’s behavior toward women should be considered sexual assault — she wouldn’t commit to actually enforcing federal law protecting women and girls in our schools.

“She has testified she will implement the law fixing No Child Left Behind the way we wrote it. We should welcome that. The school boards are in town, she trusts them — not a national school board. That means no orders from Washington to adopt Common Core. That means no orders from Washington to adopt school choice.”

Plagiarism allegations

Murray also said that, upon initial review, some of DeVos’ responses to senators’ written questions looked “copied and pasted” from previous statements or appeared to be reiterations of federal law and “not true responses.”

In an example first reported by the Washington Post, DeVos almost directly quotes but does not credit Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, in response to Murray’s question about upholding laws that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from discrimination.

Gupta was quoted in a 2016 news release saying, “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow.”

DeVos’ written response to Murray’s LGBT question was: “Every student deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, achieve and thrive and are not discriminated against.”

Rob Goad, an education policy adviser for the White House Domestic Policy Council, called the allegations of plagiarism “character assassination,” saying DeVos has “long referenced” the need for safe and supportive learning environments free of discrimination.

“These heartfelt words are not the domain of any one individual,” Goad said in a statement.

“To level an accusation against her about these words included in responses to nearly 1,400 questions — 139 alone from the ranking member — is simply a desperate attempt to discredit Betsy DeVos, who will serve the Department of Education and our nation’s children with distinction if confirmed.”

Committee Republicans also condemned Democrats’ attacks. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said DeVos has been unfairly targeted for using her fortune to try to help poor families secure better education for their kids.

“Let’s give her little bit of credit. She lives in state where she saw the need for somebody to take action, and she tried,” Burr said.

GOP lauds DeVos’ goals

DeVos aspires to move the decision-making power in education from Washington to the states and localities, Burr said.

“Why don’t we try and trust in the people elected locally to decide how their children are educated and, more importantly than that, how they construct a system that lets every child succeed,” he said.

He blamed Democrats and their allies for flooding senators’ offices with calls, which he said also went to his wife and son’s cellphones. The National Education Association said last week that members and other advocates emailed more than a million letters and placed more than 40,000 calls to senators urging them to oppose DeVos.

Teachers unions argue that DeVos would undermine the public school system to promote charter schools or taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education.

Collins of Maine said she sought and received assurance that DeVos wouldn’t support any federal legislation requiring that states adopt vouchers and wouldn’t condition federal funding on the presence of voucher programs in states.

But Collins questioned DeVos’ knowledge of federal education laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a point emphasized by Democratic critics.

“While it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect a federal nominee to know all details of such programs, I was surprised and concerned about Mrs. DeVos’ apparent lack of familiarity with the landmark 1975 IDEA that guarantees a ‘free and appropriate education’ for children with special needs,” Collins said. “I will continue to evaluate this nomination before it comes to the floor for a vote.”

Among Murkowski’s “serious” concerns is the worry that DeVos has been so immersed in advocating school vouchers that she “may be unaware of what is broken in our public schools or how to fix it.”

“Betsy DeVos must show all of us that she truly understands the children of all America — rural and urban — who are not able to access an alternative choice in education,” Murkowski said.

“She must prove that she will work to help the struggling public schools that strive to educate our children, even when their parents can’t even drive them across town to get to another school. That she will not ignore the homeless students who worry about finding a place to sleep and for whom their public school is really a refuge.”

Rachel Stewart of Washington, D.C., held a “DeVos is DeVorst” sign outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning. She had gathered with a couple dozen protesters of DeVos and Attorney General-nominee Jeff Sessions.

“My mother is a teacher, and I just don’t think you should be able to buy a position in the government,” said Stewart, whose mother works at a high school in rural Colorado. “She’s completely unqualified.”

After Tuesday’s committee vote, a simple majority of the Senate is needed to confirm her. Both of Michigan’s senators, Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, intend to vote against DeVos.

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