Democrats will seek to paint Betsy DeVos as Public School Enemy No. 1 on Tuesday during her confirmation hearing — part of a long-shot effort to thwart her confirmation to be Education secretary.
DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and GOP donor from Michigan, is an education activist with no conventional education experience in a classroom. She’s used her massive wealth to lobby for state voucher programs and the expansion of charter schools nationwide — work her backers say has boosted educational opportunities for low-income kids.
But DeVos’ limited experience working with traditional public schools also leaves her open to questions about her qualifications for the Cabinet post.
DeVos could face tough questioning from several members of the Senate education committee, including Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine, and independent Bernie Sanders.
Republican committee members — four of whom have received campaign contributions from DeVos — will likely warmly welcome her. DeVos’ views on K-12 education are very much in line with those of many GOP lawmakers, and she has strong ties to Republican establishment figures such as Jeb Bush.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander has called her an “excellent” pick, and Republican Sen. Tim Scott, a member of the committee, has called her a “smart woman” with an “unequivocal commitment” to education.
Questions on experience and ideology
Democrats have questioned DeVos’ qualifications for the job — and will likely do so again during the hearing. They also see her as having an ideological hostility toward traditional public schools.
“Your active political fundraising of course does not disqualify you from holding public office, but it does raise questions about whether you will be able to discharge your duties fairly on behalf of all Americans, including those without the wherewithal to contribute to causes or candidates you support,” Warren and Sanders recently wrote to DeVos, joined by four Democratic lawmakers.
On a more practical level, DeVos will likely take questions on how she views the federal role in education under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law governing K-12 schools that shifted more power to the states. And DeVos’ views on the controversial Common Core standards, which detail what K-12 students should know in English and Math at the end of each grade, could also come up. President-elect Donald Trump campaigned heavily against the Common Core standards, and DeVos has been criticized by some conservatives for her connections to groups that back the standards. The day Trump named her as his pick, DeVos issued a statement saying she personally opposed Common Core — a statement she reiterated later at a Trump rally in her hometown of Grand Rapids.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights inflames passions on both sides of the aisle. The office under Obama dramatically ramped up oversight on issues of campus sexual assault, transgender student bathroom access and student discipline — actions that conservatives viewed as federal overreach.
Democrats want to pin DeVos down on how she will handle these matters. Along those lines, they may question her about her $10,000 in donations that she and her husband gave to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE has sued the Obama administration to raise the standard of proof for victims of sexual assault in university administrative hearings — contending the current standard is unfair to the accused.
How Democrats deal with DeVos
At a minimum, Democrats will want to spotlight the problems they see with private school vouchers, in hopes of making it more difficult for DeVos or Trump to expand them.
Democrats already achieved a small victory in the scheduling of the hearing. It was initially slated for last Wednesday, but was pushed back nearly a week after Democrats complained that DeVos’ paperwork had not yet been fully reviewed by the Office of Government Ethics. Alexander and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s ranking member, said the decision to delay the hearing was made “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule,” but sources said the delay in the ethics review process contributed to the decision.
Is DeVos ready?
DeVos has long wielded influence in Michigan politics — where she previously ran the state’s Republican Party — and in the school choice advocacy world. And her family has long been in the public spotlight. She is married to Dick DeVos, an unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor of Michigan, former president of Amway and the former president of the Orlando Magic NBA franchise.
Over the years, DeVos has written blunt-talking commentary defending her family’s political advocacy and in support of closing the Detroit public school system. But she’s never held elected office, and the hearing may be one of the first times she’s asked to speak extensively in public about her views on higher education and early childhood programs. It remains to be seen how she handles pointed questions from Democrats.
Will DeVos’ performance affect quick confirmation?
Alexander has said the committee will vote on her confirmation on Jan. 24. Given Republicans’ 52-seat Senate majority and DeVos’ widespread support among GOP senators, she’s expected to be confirmed by the HELP Committee and, then, the full Senate barring bombshell revelations or an unexpectedly dismal performance.