Yesterday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held its vote on President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. The members of the committee voted 12 to 11 (All Republicans voted yes, and all Democrats voted no.) to report the nomination for a vote of the full U.S. Senate. (I watched the live feed of the hearing and was moved by the depth of concern for public education expressed by several committee members. My commentary is from my notes; because there has to this time been no published transcript of the full committee meeting, I have linked all direct quotes to published press reports.)
The committee hearing was definitely not a routine proceeding. Two Republican Senators—Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—expressed strong reservations about DeVos even as they voted to forward her nomination for a full Senate vote. Collins and Murkowski both said they are still considering whether or not they will finally vote to confirm the nominee. They explained that yesterday they voted to forward the nomination as a courtesy to the President.
In one of her reports after the proceeding, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post writes: “Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire chosen by President Trump to be education secretary, brings a whole new dimension to the discussion of polarizing figures in education leadership. DeVos is clearly the most controversial education nominee in the history of the nearly 40-year-old Education Department… No education secretary nominee was opposed by the ranking member of the Senate education panel before Tuesday, when Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) voted against DeVos…. (T)he opposition to DeVos is less about politics and more about her vision for the future of American education. DeVos has long been seen by many in the education world as on the forefront of the movement to spread school choice and using public dollars to allow families to pay for tuition at private schools and religious schools that are poorly regulated. She has directed millions of dollars from her family fortune to support candidates and programs that spread school choice—at the expense, critics say, of traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of America’s school children.”
Committee Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, a former Secretary of Education himself under President George H.W. Bush, admitted in his opening statement that although the committee has been able to work together through bipartisanship in the past, in the crafting of the Every Student Succeeds Act as a replacement for No Child Left Behind, for example, the committee members are irreconcilably split on the issue of the DeVos nomination. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island accused Committee Chair Alexander, for example, of “steamrolling” the DeVos confirmation vote.
Two Democrats were particularly profound as they explained why they were opposing the DeVos nomination in the committee and why they will vote against her confirmation on the Senate floor. Senator Tim Kaine read from a formal statement he released last Wednesday: “I will oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination. She failed to meet three requirements I consider essential to serving as Secretary of Education—someone who is pro-public schools, pro-accountability, and pro-civil rights… Mrs. DeVos has said that public schools are a ‘dead end’ and that ‘government really sucks’ when it comes to education. This statement betrays the commitment of thousands of public school teachers who work hard every day in our public schools, many in tough working conditions, to ensure our children are educated… I am also concerned that Mrs. DeVos does not recognize that accountability for all schools is essential…. During her confirmation hearing, I asked Mrs. DeVos whether all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be held equally accountable for outcomes…. Mrs. DeVos repeatedly refused to say there should be equal accountability between public, public charter, and private schools receiving tax dollars. Mrs. DeVos also left me in doubt about whether she would uphold critical civil rights laws, including the rights of thousands of students with special needs.” At yesterday’s hearing, Kaine added that as the former governor of Virginia, a state he described as using “states rights” to deny African American children their right to public education in the past, he said he personally understands and respects the federal government’s role to protect the rights that particular states or school districts might deny enrolled students.
Senator Al Franken’s comments yesterday to explain his vote to deny Ms. DeVos’s confirmation referenced a question he asked in her committee hearing two weeks ago—a question about concepts central to school accountability policy—whether schools should be evaluated based on whether their students reach benchmark proficiency levels or whether there is measured growth in their learning over time. Here is Franken’s comment yesterday as quoted by Valerie Strauss: “And the way we hold schools accountable in large part is by testing. And what I asked her was the most basic debate about testing, which is growth vs. proficiency. We all know that a fifth-grade teacher who takes a kid from a second-grade level of learning of reading, say, to a fourth-grade level of reading is a hero. But if you measure by proficiency, that teacher is a goat. We know the importance of growth vs. proficiency. There isn’t a teacher in this country that doesn’t know. There isn’t a principal in this country who doesn’t know. There isn’t a superintendent who doesn’t know…. This was one of the most embarrassing, it’s the most embarrassing hearing I’ve ever attended. This woman has less knowledge about public education than almost any one who has any interest at all in education. Yes, she’s been involved in education but it’s been about her ideology.”
Although Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, voted yesterday to send the DeVos nomination forward for a vote by the full Senate, Collins voiced strong reservations according to a second report by Valerie Strauss: “Like all of us, Mrs. DeVos is the product of her experience. She appears to view education through the lens of her experience in promoting alternatives to public education in Detroit and other cities…. Nevertheless her concentration on charter schools and vouchers raises the question of whether or not she fully appreciates that the secretary of education’s primary focus must be on helping states and communities, parents, teachers, school board members and administrators strengthen our public schools… There remain other questions about Mrs. DeVos’s knowledge of certain education laws. While it is unrealistic and unfair to expect a nominee to know all of the details of such programs, I was surprised and concerned about Mrs. DeVos’ apparent lack of familiarity with the landmark 1975 law, IDEA, that guarantees a free and appropriate education for children with special needs. Therefore, I will continue to evaluate this nomination before it comes to the floor, even as I vote today to advance it so that all of our colleagues have the opportunity to assess the nominee.”
As she voted with Collins to forward the nomination to the full Senate, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, also a Republican declared: “This nomination is very difficult for me.” Murkowski again described Alaska’s public schools—many in isolated and remote rural areas—the center of the children’s lives and the center of communities. The NY Times quotes Murkowski: “She has not yet earned my full support. Betsy DeVos must show all of us that she truly understands children of all America, of rural, of urban, who are not able to access an alternative choice in education.” Reflecting the depth of her concern about the candidate, Murkowski is quoted by Valerie Strauss as saying: “I will show the same respect, the same deference to President Trump’s nominee as I did President Obama’s. And I will vote to report Mrs. DeVos’s nomination to the full Senate. But do know that she has not yet earned my full support.” In the short video clip provided by Strauss, Murkowski adds: “And when each of us has the opportunity to vote “aye” or “nay” on the floor, I would not advise that she can yet count on my vote.”
Please: Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have expressed doubts about the DeVos nomination. It is entirely possible they will vote against her confirmation. Assuming that all Democrats vote against her confirmation, there are only three total Republican votes needed to defeat the nomination. Please call your Senators. Ask them to oppose Betsy DeVos’s confirmation when the full Senate votes. Or if you prefer to write, you can do so on your Senators’ websites. Or the Network for Public Education has a new action alert letter ready for you to use. If you watched the hearing today, you undoubtedly noticed that Senators have been paying close attention to the number of “yea” or “nay” e-mails and phone calls they receive.