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Senate Schedules Confirmation Hearings on Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos

January 16, 2017

On January 9, Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced the committee will move its confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos–President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education – to January 17. (The hearing had originally been scheduled for January 11). The committee is then expected to vote on the nomination on January 24.

In a joint statement on January 9, Alexander and Murray said: “At the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule, we have agreed to move the nomination hearing of Betsy DeVos to Tuesday, January 17th at 5:00 p.m. (Eastern).”

However, Alexander and Murray have also issued separate statements that illustrate the considerable difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats regarding DeVos as a nominee.

Alexander – who served as Education Secretary from 1991 to 1993 under the first President Bush – met with Betsy DeVos on January 10. After the meeting, Alexander said "Betsy DeVos and I had a great meeting today, and she is going to make an excellent Secretary of Education. I’m looking forward to her hearing because I know she will impress the Senate with her passionate support for improving education for all children. I am fully confident that she will be swiftly confirmed by the full Senate.”

Murray met with DeVos on January 4, and after that meeting, Murray said ““I appreciate Ms. DeVos taking the time to meet with me to discuss her record and her vision for the Department of Education. Following this initial conversation, I continue to have serious concerns about her long record of working to privatize and defund public education, expand taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, and block accountability for charter schools, including for-profit charter schools. I also continue to have concerns about her extensive financial entanglements and potential conflicts of interest and I hope that more information and transparency on this front is forthcoming. I look forward to a robust hearing where we can learn more about Ms. DeVos’ record and plans. And I am hopeful that Democrats and Republicans on the Committee will have every opportunity to have all of our questions answered openly and transparently and that all requested information is received with time to fully review before a vote.”

The debate over the DeVos nomination also extended into the media. In an editorial on January 10 headlined “Big Worries About Betsy DeVos,” the New York Times editorial board described DeVos as “A billionaire and education lobbyist... People who have seen her financial disclosures so far say that Ms. DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, have investments in some 250 companies registered to a single Grand Rapids, Mich., address, entities whose investments could take weeks for the ethics office to research. Already, though, there are reports that the DeVoses are indirect investors in Social Finance, Inc., a private company that refinances student loans. Private lenders like Social Finance are banned from most of the direct student lending market; their lobbyists have already written to the Trump transition team pitching to change that. That’s only one potential conflict. What if her family has holdings in educational technology or for-profit colleges? ...DeVos also faces a big challenge in explaining the damage she’s done to public education in her home state, Michigan. She has poured money into charter schools advocacy... about 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, far higher than anywhere else. She has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers for private schools.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been a vocal opponent of the DeVos nomination, saying DeVos has “tried to take the public out of public education.” But Forbes Magazine, in a post by writer Israel Ortega, took a very different view, saying “according to a number of education advocacy groups and former educators, a DeVos appointment poses no threat to public education. Instead, they see Weingarten’s attack on DeVos as a desperate attempt to discredit an education reformer who has spent millions of her own dollars trying to improve educational outcomes for all students.

Realistically, given the Republican majority in the Senate, DeVos has an excellent chance of being confirmed as Education Secretary, unless she makes a significant misstep during her comments during her confirmation hearings, or the ethics office identifies an important conflict of interest owing to her family’s complex financial affairs.

Sources:  EdBrief staff, offices of Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, New York Times, American Federation of Teachers, Forbes Magazine.

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