An hour into Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, a clear pattern had emerged. Democrats on the Senate education committee sought to nail down answers from Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary on a series of specific questions -- but they received few or no specific answers.
When Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent, asked if she would support making public colleges and universities free, she called it “a really interesting idea” but was noncommittal.
When Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey asked her whether she would uphold 2011 federal Title IX guidance on campus sexual assaults, DeVos said she knew there were many conflicting views about that guidance. She added that she would “look forward to working together to find some resolution.” Asked again if she would commit to backing the Dear Colleague Letter, she said, “It would be premature to commit to that today.”
When the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Patty Murray of Washington, asked DeVos how she would sever ties with her family’s businesses so there were no conflicts of interest, she said “where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved.”
For Democrats looking to find out more about DeVos’s views -- especially regarding higher education issues -- it was a frustrating hearing.
DeVos's prepared remarks didn't offer much insight into the approach she would take toward higher ed. She acknowledged the problem of high volumes of student loan debt but did not propose a solution. DeVos also added that career education programs should not be viewed as a "fallback" for students who don't succeed in college but should instead be viewed as one of a number of "pathways" to postsecondary education.
DeVos was subject to perhaps the toughest confirmation hearing yet for one of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, in one exchange over the growth of student debt, questioned the Michigan school-choice activist’s policy acumen. Franken pointed out that DeVos had said student debt had grown 1,000 percent in recent years. The actual figure was closer to 124 percent between 2008 and 2016.
“We want to know this person we are trusting -- may trust -- to be secretary of education, if she has the depth and breadth of knowledge that we would expect from someone that has that important job,” Franken said.
DeVos has a long history as an advocate for K-12 school choice in her home state and at the national level. She has used her personal wealth to support efforts to expand charter schools and to back school-choice policies like vouchers.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a letter earlier this month, said she was concerned with the nominee’s “paper-thin record on higher education.”
Republican members of the committee had their own higher ed-related questions for DeVos. Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson asked DeVos if she would commit to simplifying the application process for federal student aid.
Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, asked if she would work to reduce the number of regulations affecting colleges and universities, which he characterized as the most important issue for college presidents in that state.
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