Those signing the letter included 10 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats. They are all members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), which is overseeing DeVos’s confirmation.
Democrats complained when Alexander, chairman of the HELP committee, limited each member of the committee to one five-minute round of questioning during DeVos’s first hearing, on Jan. 17. Alexander was resolute at the time, and one of his aides said Monday that he will not hold another hearing for DeVos.
“Betsy DeVos has already met with each committee member in their offices, spent nearly an hour and a half longer in her Senate hearing than either of President Obama’s education secretaries, and is now answering 837 written questions — 1,397 including all the questions within a question — that Democrats have submitted for her to answer,” Alexander’s aide said. “That’s compared with the 81 questions — 109 including all questions within a question — Republicans submitted in writing to Obama’s two Secretaries of Education combined.”
Alexander argued at the Jan. 17 hearing that he was hewing to a committee precedent, treating DeVos as Arne Duncan and John King, Obama’s two education secretaries, had been treated during their confirmation hearings. But Democrats said that no committee chairman had ever before shut down a hearing before members had a chance to ask all their questions.
Duncan and King were known quantities with long track records in public education, Democrats said; there simply wasn’t as much to ask them. They have framed DeVos as a different nominee altogether: A Michigan billionaire who has no professional experience in public schools.
DeVos fed that narrative when she stumbled over questions about basic education policy during the Jan. 17 hearing, at one point suggesting that states should be able to decide whether to enforce a federal civil rights law meant to protect children with disabilities.
Her statement that guns should not be banned from schools because of “potential grizzlies” at a rural Wyoming school became instant fodder for late-night comics. Her hearing and the optics of her nomination — a wealthy political donor with no experience as an educator, who wouldn’t promise Senators that she would swear off trying to privatize public schools — have made her an object of criticism from many outside the usual Beltway education policy circles.
Democrats also want to press DeVos on potential conflicts of interest arising from her vast wealth and financial holdings. DeVos disclosed in ethics paperwork filed with the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) last week that she plans to divest from 102 companies that could present potential conflicts, but she also said she would retain interests in Neurocore, a company that purports to help students with ADHD perform better in school.
She is maintaining her stake in a family trust that has a financial interest in a company connected to for-profit higher education institutions, as well as two other family trusts about which she disclosed nothing, according to the OGE forms.
DeVos’s supporters — including advocates for vouchers and charter schools, along with many Senate Republicans — have accused Democrats of mounting a politically motivated attack.
“The committee has received Betsy DeVos’s paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics. She has completed the committee’s paperwork, answered questions for 3 ½ hours at her confirmation hearing, met privately with the members of the committee, and she will now spend the coming days answering senators’ written questions for the record,” a spokesperson for Alexander said last week. “We know that Betsy DeVos is a passionate defender of improving opportunities for low-income children who has committed to implement the law fixing No Child Left Behind as Congress wrote it, support public schools, and work to protect all children and students from discrimination and ensure they are educated in a safe environment.”
Alexander had initially scheduled a committee vote on DeVos’s confirmation for Jan. 24, but decided to delay the vote a week, until Jan. 31, to give Senators an opportunity to examine the ethics paperwork. But Democrats don’t just want more time — they want another chance to publicly question DeVos.
“We would like to ask Ms. DeVos additional questions we were prevented from asking this week given we did not know all of the financial and ethical information that has now been shared with us, as well as address additional questions that have arisen from the OGE paperwork,” Democrats wrote in their letter to Alexander. “In particular, we believe it is important to ask her questions around companies she will continue to own that are directly impacted by the Department of Education and this administration’s education agenda. We believe the opportunity to ask such questions is consistent with the responsibilities and practices of this committee.”