Betsy DeVos, the billionaire businesswoman Donald Trump has picked to be Education Secretary, proved to be remarkably clueless about federal education policy during a Senate confirmation hearing and flunked a key question about her position on guns in schools.
DeVos is best known as the chairwoman of the Windquest Group, a private investment firm. She has never spent a day much less a career teaching in the nation’s public schools. Her children were educated at private schools.
Her principal involvement in education has been through special interest groups that push for the controversial use of school vouchers as a substitute for taxpayer-funded public schools.
Critics fear she will divert desperately needed federal funds for public schools to private religious-based schools and other so-called “charter schools.”
The issue has been widely debated for years at the state and local level and has never been considered an area requiring overt federal involvement.
As Education Secretary, it remains to be seen how hard she pushes the idea, which critics say is an effort to dismantle public education in America.
During yesterday’s hearing, Clinton runningmate and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asked DeVos about enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (IDEA).
The mandate requires public schools to ensure children with disabilities receive a “free and appropriate” education just like other students. Private schools are under no such obligation and often refuse to admitt special needs children.
“Should all K-12 schools receiving government funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act?” he asked.
“I think that’s a matter that’s best left to the states,” DeVos said. She used the same response to answer other questions about federal policy.
Her response was loaded, because not all states, especially red states with Republican governors, are inclined to support federal policies.
“So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, other states might not be good, and then what? People can just move around the country if they don’t like [the schools]?” Kaine countered.
DeVos had essentially the same response when asked about whether she favored allowing guns in public schools.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy asked the nominee if guns “have any place in or around schools.”
The issue is especially sensitive for Murphy. One of the worst school shooting, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, took place in his state. In 2012, a lone gunman killed 20 children and six adults.
DeVos responded that it should be left up to the states.
“You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?” Murphy pressed.
DeVos best comeback was to point out that some schools out west might need to have guns to ward off grizzly bears.
Sen Al Franken, D-Minn. was equally frustrated when he tried to ask DeVos to explain her position on “growth” vs. proficiency” in measuring school achievement and her anti-LGBTQ statements. (See video below)
“Mrs. DeVos, your family has a long history of supporting anti-LGBT causes including donating millions of dollars to groups that push conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Franken said.
“For example, you and your family have given over $10 million to Focus On the Family, an organization that currently states on its website that, ‘homosexual strugglers can and do change their sexual behavior and identity.’”
DeVos denied believing in conversion therapy, which has been widely discredited by medical science. She said views of family members did not necessarily reflect her own.
It was clear from her testimony that DeVos will devote her time as secretary to dismantling federal regulations and passing the authority to states.
She’ll also push her pet cause, school vouchers, despite widespread opposition to the issue and the disastrous results of a program she pushed in Michigan.
About 85 percent of private schools are religious, according to the National Education Association. “Vouchers tend to be a means of circumventing the Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction,” it says.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also sees the issue in terms of religion.
“Americans must be free to contribute only to the religious groups of their choosing. Voucher programs violate this principle by forcing all taxpayers to underwrite religious education,” it argues.
“Often, religious schools promote sectarian dogma and take controversial stands on issues such as gay rights, the role of women in society and reproductive freedom.
“Taxpayers should not be required to subsidize the spread of religious/moral opinions they may strongly disagree with,” the group argues.
Even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League opposes the concept.
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Sen. Al Franken discovers Trump Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos doesn't know the difference between proficiency and growth. pic.twitter.com/QFQchwHhuc
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) January 18, 2017