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Six astonishing things Betsy DeVos said — and refused to say — at her confirmation hearing

At her confirmation hearing for education secretary on Jan. 17, Betsy DeVos gave some befuddling answers. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

At her contentious confirmation hearing as Donald Trump’s nominee to be education secretary on Tuesday, Betsy DeVos was asked a question by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) about an important education debate involving how student progress should be measured. The query essentially rendered her speechless as she appeared not to know how to answer. When Franken told her he was upset she didn’t understand it, she did not protest.

That was just one of several moments during the hearing in which DeVos either displayed a lack of knowledge about education fundamentals or refused to answer questions that Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee believe are critical to her fitness for the job.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick, lauded as bold reformer, called unfit for job

Here are some of the notable moments:

  • DeVos refused to agree with a Democrat that schools are no place for guns, citing one school that needs one to protect against grizzly bears. (She really said this.)

When Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked her whether she would agree that guns don’t belong in schools, she said: “I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”

And when asked whether she would support President-elect Donald Trump if he, as he has promised, moves to end gun-free zones around schools, she said: “I will support what the president-elect does.” She added: “If the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”

Do guns belong in schools? Trump’s education pick declines to take a stand.

  • DeVos seemed to have no understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, which requires public schools to provide free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities.

DeVos said that states should have the right to decide whether to enforce IDEA, but when Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) later told her that IDEA is a federal civil rights law and asked DeVos if she stood by her statement that it was up to the states to follow it, DeVos responded, “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.” Hassan then asked, “So were you unaware when I just asked you about the IDEA that it was a federal law?” DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.” DeVos did not protest when Hassan said she was upset the nominee didn’t understand the law and urged her to learn about it.

Betsy DeVos apparently ‘confused’ about federal law protecting students with disabilities

  • DeVos refused to agree with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that all schools that receive public federal funds — traditional public, public charter or private schools that receive voucher money — should be held to the same standards of accountability.

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter or private?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Equal accountability?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Let me ask you this. I think all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be equally accountable. Do you agree?”
DeVos: “Well they don’t, they are not today.”
Kaine: “Well, I think they should. Do you agree with me?
DeVos: “Well no . . . ”
Kaine, interrupting her, said: “You don’t agree with me.” And he moved on to another topic.

In Senate hearing, DeVos stoked activists’ fears that she will ignore education civil rights

  • DeVos said she would review gainful employment regulations without committing to enforce them.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked DeVos how she planned to protect waste, fraud and abuse from for-profit universities, citing Trump University, which President-elect Donald Trump founded; he ultimately paid $25 million to settle lawsuits by students who said they were cheated. Trump said he paid the money so he could focus on getting ready to run the country.

DeVos said, “If confirmed, I will certainly be very vigilant.” Warren persisted, “I’m asking how.” When DeVos said “individuals with whom” she will work in the department will ensure that federal money is properly used, Warren further dug in, and then explained to DeVos that there is actually a group of rules already on the books, the gainful employment regulations. “All you have to do is enforce then,” Warren said, asking DeVos if she would do so. She wouldn’t commit.

The gainful employment regulations are meant to protect students and taxpayers by withholding federal student aid to career training programs that leave students buried in debt with few opportunities to repay. Asked by Warren if she would enforce the regulations, DeVos said: “We will certainly review that rule, and see if it is actually achieving what the intentions are.”

Warren: “I don’t understand about reviewing it. We talked about this in my office. There are already rules in place to stop waste, fraud and abuse. . . . Swindlers and crooks are out there doing back flips when they hear an answer like this.”

What we learned about Betsy DeVos’s higher education positions … not much

  • DeVos appeared to have no idea what Franken was talking about when he referred to the accountability debate about whether to use test scores to measure student proficiency or student growth.

Franken noted that the subject had been debated in the education community for years, and said, when she didn’t weigh in and just looked at him without much of an expression on her face, “It surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”

  • DeVos did not answer Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) when he asked her what she had learned about the failures of the Detroit traditional public and public charter schools that would inform her decision-making as the secretary of education.

Bennet, a big supporter of charter schools, made the point that school choice isn’t much of a choice when schools aren’t held accountable and families have lousy choices wherever they look. He noted that the Detroit public schools — one of the country’s most troubled systems — has low student achievement, and charter schools in Detroit score only minimally higher.  He also cited a study that said charter schools across Michigan perform worse than traditional public schools do. But instead of answering his question, she told him she wanted to give him “context” about Detroit, to which he responded, “With respect, I’m not asking for a history of Detroit.” She also said, “I think there is a lot that has gone right” there, but she never answered his question.

PostEverything: School choice is great. Betsy DeVos’s vision for school choice is not.

  • And here’s a bonus:

DeVos said her name should not have been included on tax forms for her mother’s foundation, which has contributed to controversial causes. The forms say that she was vice president and a member of the board.

“That was a clerical error,” DeVos said. “I have never made decisions on my mother’s behalf.”

Betsy DeVos’s 13-year ‘clerical error’

See photos from the past two weeks of confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet nominees

Linda McMahon, Small Business Administration (SBA) administrator nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, is sworn in during a Senate Small Business Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. McMahon, co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., said her goal is to "revitalize a spirit of entrepreneurship in America". Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg (Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg)

Correction: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect spelling of Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D) name. The article has been updated.

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