Decision Day for DeVos

By Andrew Kreighbaum

The Senate education committee will vote today on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education — the next step in what has become one of the most publicly contentious confirmation processes for any Trump cabinet nominee and an unusually bitter fight over an education secretary nominee.

Democrats said last week that their entire caucus would vote against DeVos. North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp on Monday added her name to a growing number of Democrats who have individually announced their opposition to the Michigan billionaire and school choice activist’s leadership of the department.

Heitkamp’s office said 95 percent of constituents who contacted her office opposed DeVos. Meanwhile, teachers’ groups and other critics held demonstrations over the weekend in Washington, Los Angeles and other cities.

But Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has rejected repeated requests from ranking member Patty Murray and other Democrats to hold additional hearings or delay a vote until they have more complete information on DeVos’s potential financial conflicts and connections to dark money groups — nonprofits that can receive unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals to influence elections without disclosing donors.

Despite vocal opposition from the minority, there are no signs yet they will win the GOP votes necessary to block DeVos’s confirmation.

President Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan, was approved by voice vote in 2009. Duncan’s successor, John King, received a 49-40 vote in the Senate last year. Democrats say that unlike those two nominees, DeVos has no record in education or politics and that her history of political donations and activism on behalf of for-profit charter schools and school vouchers makes her an opponent of public education.

However, Alexander wrote last week that Democrats were “grasping for straws” to oppose her nomination. The real reason they were seeking to block her from taking over the department, he said, was that DeVos supports school choice for low-income students. He argued that federal money should follow students in the K-12 education system just as it does for Pell Grants in higher education.

The nomination of DeVos has led to a new level of contentiousness on a committee known for typically working in a bipartisan manner. And the nomination fight has created fissures in the bipartisan education-reform movement. Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group, announced after DeVos’s confirmation hearing that it would not support her nomination.

And last week the charter school advocate Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post that DeVos’s performance at the hearing was “disqualifying.”

Even some associated with DeVos’s alma mater, Calvin College, have opposed her nomination. More than 1,000 Calvin College alumni and students signed a letter last week arguing she lacks the appropriate experience and commitment to public education.

Progressive organizations and academic groups unsurprisingly came out strongly against DeVos in the lead-up to today’s vote. CREDO Action said Monday that 1.45 million people had signed a petition urging the Senate to block her nomination.

Also on Monday, the academic senate of the California State University system announced that its members had passed a resolution opposing the confirmation of DeVos, citing her lack of experience with federal education policy and “history of privatizing public schools.” The Cal State action reflected significant discomfort among higher education leaders about DeVos’s lack of knowledge about, and seeming lack of interest in, postsecondary issues.

Friends of Betsy DeVos, a group formed to support her nomination, has sought to highlight her support from Republican governors as well as Democrats including former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, Eva Moskowitz.

The Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonpartisan national organization that advocates for anti-poverty measures, wrote to Alexander and Murray Monday in opposition to DeVos. Olivia Golden, the group’s executive director, said that DeVos’s performance at the Senate confirmation hearing this month “confirmed what we already knew: she has no experience and policy understanding of disconnected youth and postsecondary issues broadly, and of college affordability and completion for low-income students in particular.”

Golden added that DeVos failed to convey in her testimony that she would be an advocate for the Pell Grant program and other support for low-income students.

With senators limited to five minutes of questioning each during DeVos’s confirmation hearing, Democrats submitted more than 800 written questions last week, including questions about her support for student financial aid programs.

In response to a question from Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, she said the goal of federal financial aid programs was to ensure access for traditionally underserved student populations.

“I think it is important to ensure that these students understand the programs that are available to them so they can make informed choices about their postsecondary options,” DeVos said. “I look forward to working with you and your colleagues to strengthen the federal student aid programs for these very students during the upcoming reauthorization of the [Higher Education Act].”