A key Republican Senator on Tuesday mounted a forceful defense of Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education nominee, calling her a champion of low-income families and accusing Democrats of “desperately” searching for reasons to reject her.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), argued in two public speeches and in an essay that DeVos — through her efforts to promote vouchers and charter schools — has a three-decade-long track record of helping low-income children and families find and enroll in better schools.
Democrats have sought to portray DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, as a radical choice for education secretary given her lack of professional experience in public schools; her advocacy for vouchers, one of the most polarizing ideas in education; and her vast wealth and extensive donations to Republican causes and candidates.
Alexander pushed back, saying repeatedly that DeVos’s desire to extend more school choices to more parents places her firmly within the mainstream of American thought.
“Our Senate Democrats are in a fit because President Trump has nominated a candidate for U.S. Education Secretary who spent the last 30 years helping low-income parents have the same choices as wealthier parents,” Alexander said at a Capitol Hill rally for National School Choice Week. “It’s hard for me to understand why anybody would be against that.”
In a speech on the Senate floor a few minutes later, he argued that taxpayer-funded vouchers for K-12 religious and private schools are not unlike the popular GI Bill, which provides college scholarships to military veterans, and that charter schools have been supported by the past six presidents, both Republicans and Democrats.
“I think Betsy DeVos is in the mainstream,” he said on the Senate floor. “Her opponents are really grasping for straws, and I’m very disappointed in them.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the HELP committee, delivered a rebuttal on the Senate floor, saying that DeVos gave “ill-informed, confused, and concerning responses to serious and reasonable questions” during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, and that Senators need more time to examine her fitness for the job.
“We in the Senate owe it to our constituents to scrutinize these nominees,” Murray said. “It’s not our job to protect them from tough questions. It’s our job to ask them tough questions.”
Teachers unions, Democrats and civil rights groups voiced serious concern about DeVos’s qualifications for the nation’s top education post almost immediately after Trump nominated her in late November.
But the chorus of opposition has grown louder in recent weeks, particularly after she stumbled over basic education policy during her confirmation hearing, at one point suggesting that states should be able to decide whether to enforce a federal law meant to protect the rights of students with disabilities. Democrats this week requested a second confirmation hearing, saying that — because Alexander restricted questions to five minutes per member during the first hearing — they needed more time to scrutinize DeVos’s preparedness to be Education Secretary and her potential conflicts of interest.
The Office of Government Ethics this week signed off on DeVos’s financial disclosures and on a plan for her to divest from 102 assets, including education companies, to resolve potential conflicts of interest. But Democrats have argued that DeVos’s ethics agreement and disclosures leave important unanswered questions about the investments she will maintain, including in a company that aims to help children with autism and ADHD improve their school performance.
Alexander brushed aside those concerns, saying in his Senate floor speech that the Office of Government Ethics has given its seal of approval — and that that should be enough. “After she divests herself, she has no conflicts of interest,” Alexander said.
He rejected the call for another hearing, saying that Democrats have asked nearly 1,400 questions of DeVos in writing — 25 times more than Republicans asked of her predecessor, John B. King Jr., who was confirmed last year. Alexander noted that he had worked to promptly confirm King despite disagreeing with him on many policy issues: “Even though they may disagree with her, Democrats should give the president a chance to have his own education secretary,” he said.