Last night, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education. Senators showed up with a lot of questions for DeVos, who has no experience in education policy but instead has a long record of supporting private school vouchers. Despite protest from the Democrats on the committee, the committee chairman allowed each senator only five minutes to ask all of their questions. Although several Senators and the public still have many questions that remain, we did learn a few things from the nominee at the hearing.
1. Betsy DeVos Won’t Rule Out Privatizing Public Education.
Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked Betsy DeVos a straightforward question: “Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?” But Ms. DeVos refused to make that commitment.
This shouldn’t be a big surprise to most people who are already aware of her position as the former chairman of the American Federation for Children (a pro-private school voucher group) or her many huge political donations to organizations and candidates that support vouchers. Her answer, however, is no less troubling.
2. Betsy DeVos Won’t Hold Voucher Schools to the Same Accountability Standards as Public Schools
Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) wanted to know whether Betsy DeVos believes private schools that accept vouchers should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools. After she tried to skirt the question several times, Kaine, frustrated, asked her: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
He then asked “I think all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be equally accountable. Do you agree with that or not?”
She responded, “…well no…”
This is an important question because most voucher programs continually fail to produce better educational outcomes – and in some cases, have produced worse results – for students. They also lack accountability measures, including standards to protect against the teaching of creationism or anti-LGBT curriculum. According to studies of voucher programs, many also lack proper oversight to ensure they meet even the minimal standards that do exist. Her answer demonstrates that she will continue to push for unaccountable private school voucher programs.
Betsy DeVos' lack of experience in public education showed at yesterday's confirmation hearing.
3. Betsy DeVos Used Creationism Code-Words When Asked About Junk Science.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked Betsy DeVos about the teaching of junk science in our public schools. He cited her financial support of an organization that defended a school district that promoted the religiously based concept of “intelligent design” in science class. (Americans United sued the school district and won in that case.)
Whitehouse asked: “If school districts around the country try to teach students junk science will the Department of Education be with the students or with the political entities trying to force the junk science into the science programs?”
She answered, “It’s clear that the expectation is that science is taught in public schools and I support the teaching of great science and especially science that allows students to exercise critical thinking.”
Although seemingly innocuous, “critical thinking” and similar phrases like “academic freedom” have been co-opted for decades by groups that promote teaching religious beliefs, such as creationism and “intelligent design,” in the classroom, and are used to discuss the alleged shortcomings of evolution. Needless to say, that’s not science and unconstitutional.
4. Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Think Private Schools that Take Vouchers Should Adhere to Federal Laws that Protect Students With Disabilities.
We know that Betsy DeVos supports voucher programs that do not adequately serve students with disabilities and require students to forfeit rights that would otherwise be provided to them under the federal civil rights law, the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Senators Tim Kaine and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) pressed her on this issue.
The exchange with Kaine showed that DeVos does not believe students with disabilities in voucher programs should have the full protections of federal civil rights laws.
Kaine: Should all [K-12] schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
DeVos: I think that is an issue that is best left up to the states.
Kaine: So some states might be good to kids with disabilities and other states might not be so good? And then what, people could just move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?
Devos: I think that’s an issue that is best left up to the states.
And given one more chance to answer by Kaine, DeVos said “I think it’s certainly worth discussion.”
Later, Maggie Hassan explained to DeVos the dangers vouchers pose to students with disabilities. She told DeVos, “I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with [IDEA] and that you seem to support vouchers schools that . . . have made students sign away their rights to make sure the law enforced. That’s very troubling to me.” And DeVos couldn’t really muster a meaningful response.
During yesterday's hearing, we found even more reason to oppose confirming DeVos as Secretary of Education. We've urged the Committee to vote no on her confirmation. It's your turn to weigh in – contact your Senator today!