At DeVos' Senate Hearing, Questions Of Choice, Charters, 'Other Options' | KUOW News and Information

At DeVos' Senate Hearing, Questions Of Choice, Charters, 'Other Options'

Jan 17, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 6:33 am

The education philosophy of Betsy DeVos boils down to one word: choice. The billionaire has used her money to support the expansion of public charter schools and private school vouchers.

For more than three hours on Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to run the Education Department handled tough questions on school choice, charters and the future of the nation's schools from the Senate committee that handles education.

In her opening remarks, DeVos made clear she doesn't think traditional public schools are a good fit for every child.

"Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child," she said. "And they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based or any other combination."

The problem, say DeVos' critics, is her faith in the free market, and that she thinks parents should be able to use public-school dollars to pay for alternatives outside the system.

That led to this exchange with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.:

Murray: "Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?"

DeVos: "Senator, thanks for that question. I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students. And we acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. And I'm hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them."

Murray: "I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education."

DeVos: "I guess I wouldn't characterize it in that way."

Murray: "Well," she said, laughing, "okay."

Congress passed a big, bipartisan education law just a year ago — and, as the committee's Republican chairman, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, pointed out during the hearing, vouchers didn't make the cut.

So he asked DeVos if, as secretary, she would try to push them onto states anyway. Her answer: "No. I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation, but certainly not any kind of mandate from within the department."

Alexander is a strong supporter of DeVos, and began the hearing by saying he believes she is "on our childrens' side."

Also on DeVos' side: former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who introduced her and swung back at teachers unions and others who oppose her, in part, because the billionaire has never taught in, managed or attended a public school.

In Lieberman's words, it's a positive that she's not part of the "education establishment."

"Honestly, I believe that today that's one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job," he said.

The committee's Democrats were frustrated not just with some of DeVos' answers, but also with Chairman Alexander — first because he chose to hold the hearing before the Office of Government Ethics could finish its review of her financial holdings, looking for conflicts of interest, and second because Alexander held senators to a strict, five-minute time limit, prompting one of his colleagues to lament what he called "a rush job."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Betsy DeVos has spent much of her career and her own money trying to create alternatives to public schools that aren't giving students the education they need. Donald Trump has tapped her to lead the Department of Education. And yesterday, DeVos took questions from senators on Capitol Hill about her education philosophy. NPR's Cory Turner says it all boils down to one word - choice.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In her opening remarks, DeVos made clear she doesn't think traditional public schools are a good fit for every child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETSY DEVOS: Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs - need of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based or any other combination.

TURNER: The problem, say DeVos' critics, is her faith in the free market and that she thinks parents should be able to use public school dollars to pay for options that aren't public schools. That led to this exchange with Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTY MURRAY: Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?

DEVOS: Senator, thanks for that question. I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students.

TURNER: DeVos went on to say she hopes she can find common ground with those who disagree with her views on school choice, to which Murray said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURRAY: I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education.

DEVOS: Well, I guess I wouldn't characterize it in that way.

MURRAY: Well, (laughter) OK.

TURNER: Congress passed a big bipartisan education law just a year ago. And as the committee's Republican chairman, Lamar Alexander, pointed out during the hearing, vouchers didn't make the cut. So he asked DeVos if, as secretary, she would try to push them on the states anyway. Her answer...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEVOS: No, I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation, but certainly not any kind of mandate from within the department.

TURNER: To be clear, Alexander is a strong supporter of DeVos, and began the hearing by saying he believes she is on our children's side. Also on DeVos' side, former Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced her and swung back at her critics, including teachers unions, who point out that the billionaire has never taught in, managed or attended a public school. In Lieberman's words, she's not part of the education establishment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE LIEBERMAN: Honestly, I believe that today, that's one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job.

TURNER: The committee's Democrats were frustrated, not just with some of DeVos' answers, but also with Chairman Alexander - first, because he chose to hold the hearing before the Office of Government Ethics could finish its review of DeVos' financial holdings, looking for conflicts of interest. Alexander also held senators to a strict five-minute time limit, prompting one of his colleagues to lament what he called a rush job. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.