WASHINGTON — In a sometimes contentious confirmation hearing, education secretary pick Betsy DeVos pledged that she would not seek to dismantle public schools amid questions by Democrats about her qualifications, political donations and long-time work advocating for charter schools and school choice.
DeVos said she would address "the needs of all parents and students" but that a one-size fits all model doesn't work in education.
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But Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee grilled the wealthy Republican donor on a range of issues from sexual assault to child care, students with disabilities and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked DeVos outright if she would have gotten the job had it not been for her family's political contributions. "As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility," she responded. "I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years."
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, said she was "extremely disappointed" that DeVos had not finalized her financial and ethics disclosures ahead of the hearing. She also asked whether DeVos would divest herself of any family business enterprises that may represent a conflict of interest in her job, including one student loan refinancing company.
"Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted. Period," DeVos said.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, expressed confidence that DeVos is an "excellent" choice for the job. "She is on the side of our children," he said.
DeVos said that if she is confirmed education secretary, she will take a salary of only $1.
She sidestepped a question about whether she would rein in the department's Office for Civil Rights' work to protect students from campus sexual assault. DeVos said she would "be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled and with great sensitivity to those who are victims."
What if unwanted kissing and groping, like the behavior Donald Trump once bragged about, happened in a school, Murray asked. Would DeVos consider that sexual assault?
DeVos said yes.
Asked by Sanders about her views on tuition-free public colleges and universities, DeVos said: "I think we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody is going to pay for it."
She skirted Sanders' question on whether she would support making child care free or much more affordable for low-income families as is the case in many countries around the world, saying only that she feels strongly about "parents having an opportunity for child care for their children."
"But it's not a question of opportunity," Sanders fired back, raising his voice. "It's a question of being able to afford it!"
Facing criticism from teachers unions that she is working against public education, DeVos told the committee that she will be "a strong advocate for great public schools."
"But," she added, "if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent's right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative."
Amid concerns that DeVos' conservative religious views might make her a poor advocate for the rights of the LGBT community and other minorities, DeVos stressed that no students should face discrimination. Alexander read into the record a letter of support from the Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican organization pushing for LGBT rights.
As the hearing dragged on into its fourth hour, Democratic senators made repeated requests with Chairman Alexander to allow them to pose another round of questions to DeVos, but he refused, citing procedures at previous hearings.
DeVos, 59, also said she will seek to address rising higher education costs and massive student debt, but also advance trade and vocational schools as well as community colleges because "craftsmanship is not a fallback — but a noble pursuit."
DeVos, the wife of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has spent more than two decades advocating for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, as well as promoting conservative religious values.
In a letter addressed to the committee, 38 prominent education groups and teachers' organizations expressed concern that DeVos' track record bodes ill for public education.
"Over the course of her career as a major campaign contributor, soft-money donor and lobbyist, DeVos has used her considerable wealth to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students," the letter said.
LGBT groups also have protested Trump's choice of DeVos, saying she has funded conservative religious groups that promote what they consider to be traditional family values, including one organization that supports conversion therapy — counseling of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.
DeVos told the hearing late Tuesday that she never supported the idea and that "believes in the innate value of every single human being."
DeVos supporters, meanwhile, applauded her nomination. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, said that American public education "is in deep crisis," with 35 countries outranking American schools in math and 20 in reading.
"I believe Betsy DeVos has the talent, commitment and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools and deliver the promise of opportunity that excellent education provides, and I support her nomination as U.S. secretary of education," Moskowitz said in a statement.