President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, in written responses to questions from senators, appears to have used several sentences and phrases from other sources without attribution — including from a top Obama administration civil rights official.
The responses from nominee Betsy DeVos were submitted Monday to the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which voted Tuesday morning to send her confirmation to the full Senate for final approval.
In answering a set of questions from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on how she would address bullying of LGBT students, DeVos wrote: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive, and grow.”
That sentence is almost identical to language used by Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama, in a news release announcing the administration’s controversial guidance to schools on how to accommodate transgender students.
“Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow,” Gupta said in the May 2016 release.
Rob Goad, a White House education adviser, said in an email: “This is character assassination. The secretary designate has long been referencing the need for safe and supportive learning environments, free of discrimination, for all students, so that they can learn, achieve, thrive, grow and lead successful productive lives. To level an accusation against her about these words included in responses to nearly 1,400 questions — 139 alone from the ranking member — is simply a desperate attempt to discredit Betsy DeVos, who will serve the Department of Education and our nation’s children with distinction if confirmed.”
The revelation comes as Democrats are making an all-out push against key Trump nominees — including DeVos, attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, and others. But Democrats cannot block those confirmations unless they can persuade a handful of Republicans to break with the new president.
DeVos has come under withering scrutiny from Democrats who have raised concerns about her advocacy for school privatization initiatives, her financial ties to the education industry and the seemingly weak grasp of federal civil rights laws she demonstrated at her confirmation hearing this month.
Murray made reference to the apparent copying in remarks at the committee vote.
“This nominee is being jammed through with corners being cut and with the minority being brushed aside,” she said. “We just received responses to hundreds of written questions yesterday, less than 24 hours before this scheduled vote, and with no time to fully review and ask any follow-up questions. Though, I will say, upon initial review, many of the responses look copied and pasted from previous statements or are simple reiterations of the law and no true responses at all.”
Murray also appears to have used language from other sources without attribution in at least two questions she asked of DeVos. One question about personnel shortages in special education included six sentences that match verbatim language from a factsheet published by the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services.
Another question, about DeVos’s stance on resolving student complaints about distance-education programs, included several phrases that match language in a 2016 Education Department press release.
“Senator Murray and Committee staff work closely with constituents and education advocates to make sure that the people she represents have a voice in this process and have their questions and concerns addressed by the nominees,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Murray. “As questions and ideas from advocates and education groups were pulled in by staff for the written questions for the record, a number of lines were included in the final product that did not include proper citation to their original source.”
In a set of questions about her views on lesbian, gay and bisexual students, including about whether transgender students should be able to use bathrooms that match their gender identity, DeVos answered: “Every student deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, achieve and thrive and are not discriminated against. Period.”
That language is similar to language appearing in an article in a magazine published by ASCD, an organization devoted to education leadership.
The article outlines what educators can do to create schools that are supportive of transgender students, and concludes: “You — as an educator and an ally — can dramatically shift the school climate to one that is safe, supportive, and inclusive: a place where all students can learn, achieve, and thrive.”
In other instances, answers that DeVos submitted in Murray in her 62-page response used text verbatim from federal statutes and Education Department materials without direct quotation.
In one response, to a question about whether she would continue the practice of publishing a list of schools under Title IX civil rights investigations, DeVos said, “Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has made a determination about the merits of the complaint.”
That language mirrors an Education Department website: “Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to the merits of the complaint.”
Other responses refer to a requirement that the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights “make an annual report to the Secretary, the President, and the Congress summarizing the compliance and enforcement activities” of the department’s Office of Civil Rights and that the assistant secretary is authorized “to collect or coordinate the collection of data necessary to ensure compliance with civil rights laws within the jurisdiction” of the civil rights office.
Those are verbatim excerpts of a 1979 federal statute, but the law is not quoted or cited.