The Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy Devos took place on January 17, 2017, and started out with the stipulation that there would only be one round of questions from the Senators in attendance, each restricted to five minutes. The Democratic Senators in attendance took umbrage with that fact, but managed to give her the third degree despite time constraints. During the hearing, the embattled nominee made some statements that added to the already well-established Democratic disdain for her appointment.
One of the biggest controversies came when Betsy Devos claimed that she has never been on the board of her family’s Prince Foundation. When Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) pushed for more information, Devos claimed that she shouldn’t have been on any of the foundation’s paperwork. Devos said it was a clerical error, and that she was never in a decision-making position at the foundation. While it may somehow be true that a clerical error listed her as a member of the board, it would have to have been a 13 year-long clerical error.
When the Democratic Senator Al Franken questioned Devos about her thoughts regarding testing students on proficiency or growth, she seemed to struggle with the question. In education circles there are competing schools of thought. Some believe in the method of testing a student for a certain level of proficiency, a baseline for their grade level, and calling it a success if an acceptable number of students test above that line. Others believe that students would be better served by a system by which students are graded on their growth throughout the year.
Later on, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) took her turn grilling Devos. Warren’s questions highlighted the student loan issues faced by young Americans and the lack of enforcement of the gainful employment rules when it comes to for profit colleges. As she brought up for profit colleges, Warren didn’t miss an opportunity to get another mention of President Elect Donald Trump’s $25M settlement in suits against his own for profit college.
Bernie Sanders (I – VT) got straight to the point, asking Devos just how much her family has contributed to the GOP. The answer was that it is possible that it was hundreds of millions. When asked if she thought she would be nominated without those massive political donations, no answer was offered.
Some of the concerns surrounding Devos existed long before her confirmation hearing was even scheduled. Her work in the Michigan school system has been panned as detrimental by many critics. She and her husband are on record at a 2001 conference explaining that the public school system is a failure, and that reform would be a good way to further their religious goals.
In a season of tumultuous confirmation hearings, this one was no different. The Department of Education is a pivotal seat, and policy set there has a real impact on the future of our country.