Mitchell Zais, nominated to be No. 2 at the Education Department, testified at his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee. (Screen image by The Washington Post)

The retired brigadier general tapped to be No. 2 at the Education Department behind Betsy DeVos told Congress on Wednesday he was “unaware” of extensive research showing that voucher programs in three states negatively affected student achievement. And he conceded that his belief that school choice always led to positive impacts on achievement rested on anecdotal evidence.

Mitchell Zais, a former South Carolina state schools superintendent and former president of a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, appeared at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. He also said he was “unclear as to exactly what the law is” regarding whether schools must allow transgender students to use a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

Zais, nominated as deputy secretary of education, testified at the hearing with three other Trump administration nominees — one for a position at the Education Department and two at the Labor Department. They answered questions largely from Democratic senators because Republican panel members were not present, other than Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

The other Education Department nominee was James Blew, who was director of the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 reform efforts for nearly a decade and also national president of StudentsFirst, the reform organization started by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Blew was nominated to be assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development. Both men — strong supporters of the DeVos agenda of expanding school choice — are expected to be confirmed.

The two were peppered with questions from Democrats about their support for voucher programs — which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition — and other issues, including upholding civil rights laws. Vouchers were a key focus of questions from the senators because school choice is the stated priority of Devos, who has spent decades promoting charter schools and vouchers and similar initiatives.

DeVos is so partial to schools that are alternatives to traditional public schools that Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) asked Blew if one of the Education Department’s priorities should be to “strengthen public schools.” Blew responded: “I look forward to answering more of your questions in writing. But absolutely, yes.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) expressed concern about the department’s secrecy by noting he had met with Zais and Blew in his office after their nominations to learn about their plans for the department. It is customary for presidential nominees to meet privately with senators on committees that confirm nominees.

But, Kaine said, he was surprised when both men told him they couldn’t share even basic information, such as their job descriptions, because they didn’t know, and cited as an excuse “a firewall” at the department. Kaine said this had not happened before and that it hampered the Senate’s oversight function.

“It has not been my experience with any other nominees from other departments,” Kaine said. “I am able to ask people about their job description and their intentions.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Zais about his support for vouchers and whether he was aware of recent research about the impact of vouchers on student achievement.

Zais responded: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that is the best fit for their children, there are improved outcomes.”

To which Franken replied: “No, that is not true.” He then cited a New York Times article from earlier this year about three studies of large voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio, which found vouchers negatively affected test results in reading and math. (Franken did not mention a major 2017 study on the nation’s only federally funded voucher program, in Washington, D.C., that showed similar results.)

Zais said: “I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked him whether what he said about improved outcomes was based on “anecdotal” evidence, and Zais replied: “Yes, it was.”

Franken also asked Zais whether he would advise the Education Department’s Civil Rights Office to support a complaint from a transgender student who was denied the right to use a school bathroom that aligns with the student’s gender identity. Franken cited a May 2017 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which sided with a transgender boy whose Wisconsin school district had sought to bar him from the boys’ bathroom, supposedly to protect other students.

Zais said: “I believe firmly that no child should be subjected to bullying, abuse and intimidation, and that includes transgender students.” But he also said he could not comment on the question because he doesn’t know if LGBT “is a protected class” or what the law says.

Franken told him: “Well, that is the law. So you will enforce it?” Zais replied: “I will work with you and the secretary. Right now, I am unclear as to exactly what the law is.”

Zais spent three decades in the Army and retired as a brigadier general before serving for 10 years as president of the private Newberry College in South Carolina, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He served one term, from 2011 to 2015, as the state’s superintendent of education.

At the start of the hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the highest ranking Democratic on the committee, told Zais and Blew that she found their records troubling:

General Zais, given Secretary DeVos’s lack of experience and track record, it’s clear she needs a deputy committed to students and public education, so it is very troubling that you share Secretary DeVos’s views on privatization.

And you have made a number of comments that make me question your ability to help set a course for this agency based on facts, science and evidence, including that 5-year-olds are too young to learn, and that abstinence-only sex education and creationism should be taught in schools.

And your decision — as South Carolina’s state superintendent — to reject federal funding that would benefit students, teachers and public schools makes me question whether you act based on political ideology — rather than what’s best for students.

Mr. Blew, the Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development is critical in developing and implementing policy, which impacts every student in the country. So your record of promoting school vouchers gives me pause that you will not stand up for students and public schools.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked Zais, who said early-childhood education is the responsibility of states and not the federal government, about a statement attributed to him that 5-year-olds can’t learn. He said he didn’t remember saying that but knows it isn’t true.