Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at her confirmation hearing that "there's nothing in life that's truly free" when asked whether she would support making public colleges tuition-free. (Reuters)

He couldn’t have really expected her to answer this in the negative, but Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) went right at Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary nominee, at her confirmation hearing Tuesday with a question that was a direct jab at her qualifications for the job: Did the fact that she is a billionaire have anything to do with her nomination?

DeVos, one of a few billionaires that Trump has tapped to serve in his Cabinet or as an adviser, is a controversial choice for education secretary.

Her allies say she has worked in education for decades, is devoted to helping children and will be a fine education secretary. Critics have accused her of working for decades to privatize the public education system — which she herself has called a “dead end” for students — and they have noted that she never attended a public school, sent her children to one, or worked in one and has no real understanding of how it works.

DeVos has been a major donor to Republican politicians; she and her family members have given at least $20.2 million to federal Republican candidates and committees since 1989, according to OpenSecrets.org. During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, according to this story by my colleague Emma Brown, DeVos and her relatives gave at least $818,000 to 20 current Republican senators, including more than $250,000 to five members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, appeared before senators at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, but some of her responses created more questions than they answered. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Sanders was questioning her about her qualifications in as blunt a way as anyone has. Here’s the back and forth:

Sanders: “Mrs. DeVos, there is a growing fear, I think, in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very, very wealthy billionaires control, to a significant degree, our economic and political life. Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?”

DeVos: “Senator, first of all thank you for that question. I again was pleased to meet you in your office last week. I wish I could give you that number. I don’t know.”

Sanders: “I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?”

DeVos: “Collectively? Between my entire family?”

Sanders: “Yeah, over the years.”

DeVos: “That’s possible.”

Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos: “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”