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11 revealing answers DeVos gave to Democratic senators’ questions about vouchers, Common Core and more

President Trump points at Betsy DeVos, his nominee for education secretary, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

I recently published an analysis by Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, of answers that Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, gave to 139-plus questions sent to her by Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The good, evasive and very bad answers Betsy DeVos gave to questions from Democrats about education

Murray wasn’t the only Democrat to send questions to DeVos after her performance at the committee’s Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, where she displayed a lack of understanding of key education issues. In fact, every Democratic member on the committee sent her questions — a total of 837, some of which had sub-questions, for a total of 1,397.

Here are some answers DeVos provided to Democratic senators on a number of subjects, including vouchers, Common Core, charter schools, civil rights and more. In the answers, DeVos defended the extremely troubled charter sector in Michigan and gave a nuanced answer to a question about the Common Core State Standards, which she was thought to have supported until she recently came out against it.

She praised as “robust” Trump’s proposal to spend $20 billion in federal funds to encourage states to expand vouchers, which use public funds to pay for public and private school tuition. It’s no surprise that she praised it, given that the nonprofit organization she founded, the American Federation for Children, influenced the thinking behind it.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked DeVos whether she would “ensure that private school voucher programs do not further segregate our schools,” DeVos said: Research shows that students in school choice programs attend more integrated schools than their traditional public school counterpart.”

Actually, research doesn’t show that in most areas of the country. The Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles said in a report:

As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates, the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools.

The Senate will vote, probably Monday, on her nomination. At midday Friday, the vote was expected to be 50-50, which would force Vice President Pence to break the tie to confirm her.

Here are some of the questions and answers, with some notes I have written about them:

Questions by Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan (D-N.H.) about Common Core:

Q. You recently said you want to end the Common Core, yet you founded the Great Lakes Education Project, which has supported the Common Core and was a major driver of its implementation in Michigan. Additionally, you served on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which supported the Common Core. Do you generally not agree with the foundations that you support on major policies, or is this an anomaly?
A. I believe in high standards of excellence and achievement. I also believe it is the job of states to set those standards. The federal government can highlight their success, but I don’t support a federalized approach to Common Core. I have supported many good causes over the years across the political spectrum. I have contributed to organizations because of particular initiatives they have undertaken, but that in no way means I support all of their activities. In fact, I appreciate the opportunity to highlight my diversity, from GLEP, to Excel in Ed to the Clinton Global Initiative, there are organizations that I have helped support with whom I do not fully agree. It is important to listen to a variety of perspectives. I applaud what this Congress and Committee did in its passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. You all made it quite clear that there should be no federal role in determining standards.
Q. You have stated you want to end the “federalized Common Core.” Despite the fact that Common Core is entirely voluntary and not federalized, how would you proceed with eliminating it, particularly since ESSA clearly prohibits the federal government from requiring states to adopt or change their standards?
A. I agree that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) clearly prohibits the federal government from requiring states to adopt or change their standards. If confirmed, I intend to ensure this provision is implemented as Congress intended.

NOTE: Some conservative anti-Core legislators have been worried about DeVos because she has been a close ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who was a big proponent of the Common Core. DeVos never came out against the Core until after she was nominated by Trump, who has said repeatedly he would eliminate it. Of course, no president can snap their fingers and wish it away, because it was approved by individual state boards of education and/or legislators and/or education commissioners and they would have to decide to give it up.

 Questions from Warren about vouchers:

Q. Will you commit to opposing any private school voucher program using federal taxpayer dollars if that program results in increased racial or socioeconomic segregation?
If yes, how will you ensure that private school voucher programs do not further segregate our schools?
A. Research shows that students in school choice programs attend more integrated schools than their traditional public school counterparts. On average, nonpublic school classrooms are more integrated than nearby traditional public school classrooms. Traditional Public schools, by contrast, are heavily segregated because attendance is determined by where people live. On the other hand, nonpublic schools can draw students from a bigger geographic area — allowing for a broader range and diversity of potential students.
Q. Will you commit to opposing any private school voucher program using federal taxpayer dollars if that program does not adhere to federal accountability and anti-discrimination rules?
How will you ensure that private school voucher programs that receive federal dollars comply with federal education accountability and civil rights laws?
Will you commit to opposing any private school voucher program using federal taxpayer dollars if that program does not adhere to basic health and school safety requirements?
A. President Trump has made a robust school choice proposal a centerpiece of his agenda, and, if confirmed, I look forward to working with you on our proposal and hope to convince you to support the legislation. As you may know, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program prohibits, by law, discrimination against “program participants or applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex” and participating schools must abide by city health and safety codes. I would imagine that any voucher proposal approved by Congress would maintain these common-sense requirements, and I look forward to working with you on President Trump’s proposal when it is released. I hope you’ll keep an open mind.

NOTE: The D.C. voucher program was not approved by the local government in the District but rather by Congress, which used the nation’s capital as an experiment in school choice. A 2012 Washington Post story found that quality controls of schools accepting federally funded vouchers in the District were lacking:

[A] Washington Post review found that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.

Quality controls lacking for D.C. schools accepting federal vouchers

QUESTION from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) about Michigan’s troubled charter school sector:

Q.  Researcher and charter school expert, Doug Harris, has said that “As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, [you are] partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” Of the 159 traditional public and charter schools in Detroit — only three schools perform above the state average in reading or math. Charters were supposed to dramatically increase student achievement but perform about the same as the Detroit Public Schools in reading and math despite charters serving a much smaller percentage of students with disabilities. It defies logic than that you and your family spent $1.45 million in seven weeks to kill a bipartisan reform package to increase accountability for all of Detroit schools — public and charter. It’s what the Detroit Free Press Editorial Page called “a filthy, moneyed kiss to the charter school industry at the expense of kids who’ve been victimized by those schools’ unaccountable inconsistency.” Given your record of ideology over evidence, how can we entrust that you will put what is best for kids and communities over ideology as the top education official in our nation?
A. I disagree with your characterization of Michigan charter schools. Charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their traditional public school peers. In Detroit, the gain is three months. As for the legislation you referenced, I opposed the bill that would have added an additional layer of bureaucracy and given the city’s traditional schools a pass on accountability. I advocated for a different bill — now law — that provided uniform and tough accountability measures for all schools, not just charter schools in Detroit. Because of my support and that of many others, for the first time in state history, both charter schools and traditional public schools are now subject to mandatory state closure or restructuring if they do not demonstrate results.

NOTE: DeVos’s defense of charter schools in Michigan is something of a stretch. Not only are they overall low-performing but a 2016 study found that they have hurt traditional public school districts in the state.  The study “Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why: Michigan’s Story” found that among Michigan districts, “80 percent of the explained variation in district fiscal stress is due to changes in districts’ state funding, to enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and to the enrollment of high-cost special education students.”

Questions from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) about students with disabilities, vouchers and LGBT rights in schools:

Q. Do you believe we are adequately funding states to ensure any student with disabilities receives the support and resources they need to succeed in school? If not, in what ways will you work to increase funding for special education services without cutting funding for other programs that support teachers, students, and parents?
A.  If confirmed, I look forward to talking with school officials and parents to look at ways to support the educational needs of students with disabilities. This is not only through funding, and I do support adequate funding for IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] but also through helping to share best practices between schools so programs with greater effectiveness and efficiency may be used by schools to better educate their students.

NOTE: DeVos didn’t directly answer Franken’s question. At her confirmation hearing,  she was confused about IDEA, apparently not knowing at the time that it was a federal law that states could not implement at will but were mandated to follow. Her lack of understanding of the law helped spark significant opposition to her nomination from disabilities rights groups, many who have urged senators not to confirm her.

Q. Do you believe that Christian schools should be allowed to kick out or ban LGBT students or students with LGBT parents? If yes: Do you stand by that position when public taxpayer funding is used to pay for part, or all, of the tuition at that private school?
A. I believe it is important to enforce the laws faithfully and fully. When an entity is in receipt of federal funding the entity must abide by the rules governing that funding. If confirmed, I will ensure every grantee and subgrantee is in compliance with the law, including all anti-discrimination laws. I will use the bully pulpit of my office to work to make sure that every child and their parents feel welcome and safe in the school of their choice. I will use the powers of my office to enforce every federal law against discrimination wherever they apply.
Q. Are you concerned at all that President Trump’s bigoted rhetoric is deeply affecting children across the nation — making students who fall into one of the many groups of people that Trump has attacked feel like they don’t belong in their own communities and in their own schools?
A. All students deserve access to a quality education. If confirmed, I will enforce the laws under my jurisdiction to ensure the laws are faithfully implemented.

NOTE: Critics have expressed concern about DeVos and her deep ties to the Christian Reformed community in Michigan. She never attended a public school and went to a Christian college. Hundreds of alumni of Calvin College signed a letter opposing her nomination, saying that she isn’t qualified for the job. The letter said in part:

1) While many of us were inspired by our time at Calvin College to make education a professional commitment, Mrs. DeVos was not. She has never worked in any educational institution as an administrator, nor as an educator. If the position of the Secretary of Education requires the individual to have an intimate knowledge of the tools used by educators, which we believe it does, Mrs. DeVos does not qualify.
2) Many of us entered Calvin College directly from Christian high schools and spent our entire elementary and secondary school years in these institutions, as did Mrs. DeVos. While we appreciate the opportunity to thrive and learn that is provided by these educational systems, we recognize that the vast majority of K–12 students are educated in the public school system. Because of this, we believe that any individual who is nominated to be Secretary of Education should have a strong commitment to public education, which Mrs. DeVos does not.

Hundreds of students, alumni from DeVos’s Christian college oppose her selection as education secretary

Sen. Chris. Murphy (DConn.) about former president Barack Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative:

Q. The Promise Neighborhoods program, which was permanently authorized under ESSA, has been instrumental in helping some of the most distressed communities in the United States build capacity to better serve children and families. Do you support this program and believe that funding should continue to be appropriated for it?
A. If confirmed, I will look closely at the budget of the Department of Education to determine the best allocation of taxpayer dollars to programs when proposing budgets for future fiscal years.

NOTE: Obama, in his first term, concentrated not on Promise Neighborhoods but on corporate school reform, such as school choice and standardized test-based accountability systems for teacher evaluation. But he did create the Promise initiative. DeVos does not commit, in this question, to continue funding the program at a sustainable level.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), about early-childhood education:

Q. Your predecessors in the Department of Education made it clear that they believed the United States should lead the world in access to high-quality early-childhood education. Do you share this belief and would you make this a goal for our country?
A. Early-childhood education is important and can help put a child on a path to success and the workforce. That is why it is exciting to see so many states invest in and support early education programs for families. If confirmed, I look forward to working with state and local leaders to support their efforts to provide early-childhood education. As you know, the Every Student Succeeds Act included the authorization of Preschool Development Grants to help states improve the services they are providing. If confirmed, I will work with the Secretary of Health and Human Services to confirm the efficiency and effectiveness of all early-childhood education programs and initiatives.

NOTE: Quality early-childhood education is one of the few things that have been proven to help students achieve in school, but DeVos refuses, in this answer, to make it a federal priority, even though she has said repeatedly she wants to promote programs that work.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) about the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

Q. If you are confirmed as Secretary, will OCR [the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights] continue to enforce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect students from discrimination based on gender identity or transgender status?
A. If confirmed as Secretary, I will carefully review the law and all existing guidance documents that are in effect on Title IX to ensure the Department is faithfully implementing the law as intended.