Betsy DeVos has been a political heavyweight for decades, spending millions to advance conservative causes. But Tuesday evening, Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary will be asked to fill in her own personal beliefs on a host of controversial education issues.
Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions are preparing to question DeVos on a broad scope of topics, honing in on the fact that, to date, DeVos has been largely a blank slate on college affordability, transgender issues in schools and for-profit colleges.
DeVos, who bridges two powerful and wealthy conservative families, has been a prolific Republican donor for decades. She has given millions to groups that advocate for school privatization and voucher programs, including the American Federation for Children, a group she chaired from 2009 to 2016.
She has also given millions to political groups like the Republican National Committee and the Republican National Senatorial Committee and contributed to four senators on the committee overseeing her confirmation. And she donated to a handful of 2016 presidential campaigns, although notably, she was not a Donald Trump supporter and was critical of him during the campaign.
All of this giving has Democrats on the committee concerned, especially because DeVos lacks on-the-record statements about a host of issues that will fall within the education secretary’s purview, meaning they will have to question the Michigan Republican one a variety of topics.
“I am troubled by your seemingly nonexistent record on higher education,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a member of the Senate panel that will consider DeVos, wrote in a letter Monday.
Warren lambasted DeVos in the scathing letter for a lack of public education experience, arguing her only experience with education was through her “deep record of political activism, bankrolling and lobbying for policies” she supported.
“There is no precedent for an Education Department secretary nominee with your lack of experience in public education,” Warren wrote, adding, “As such, your nomination provides the Senate and the public with few clues about your actual policy positions on a host of critical issues.”
Others Democrats have hit DeVos, arguing that spending on education issues does not make someone qualified to lead department that oversees the issue.
DeVos has used her family’s considerable fortune to staunchly advocated her positions, particularly in K-12 education.
Through a trio of family foundations, DeVos has substantially backed school voucher programs, fulfilling the belief that they not only benefit children in poverty, but that they also allow families to send their children to religious schools with state funds.
While Democrats plan to push DeVos on this view — committee ranking member Patty Murray charged DeVos with wanting to “block accountability for charter schools” after meeting her earlier this month — DeVos’ view is in line with Trump and many Republicans in Congress.
Trump, as a candidate, advocated using as much as $20 billion in federal money to fund vouchers, possibly by redirecting $15 billion that benefits schools who serve the nation’s poorest children.
Trump’s transition team has so far declined to get into a back and forth regarding DeVos’ credentials, telling CNN that DeVos looks forward to answering questions from the committee at Tuesday’s hearing.
DeVos will be introduced by former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a committee aide tells CNN.
Lieberman, the Democrat-turned independent who was Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000, spent years on Capitol Hill trumpeting school choice, a position likely to be at the center of DeVos’ testimony. He currently serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, a group DeVos recently chaired.
Fight over vouchers, religion
Senate Republicans expect a fight Tuesday, especially on DeVos’ positions regarding vouchers, which are widely seen as benefitting families who want to send their children to parochial schools, and raises questions about tax dollars funding religion.
“There is a religious agenda behind voucher proposals,” said Katherine Stewart, author of the book, “The Good News Club,” which explores the religious right in schools. “There is a segment of the conservative evangelical world that sees public education as secular, and is therefore hostile to it.”
DeVos herself has made comments about the role of religion in schools. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, sent their kids to parochial schools, and Dick DeVos told the Associated Press in 2006 that he’s for the teaching of intelligent design in schools.
Randi Weingarten, a Hillary Clinton supporter and the head of the American Federal of Teachers, called DeVos the “most anti-public education nominee in the history of the department” in a speech this month.
But it’s not just Democrats who have been critical. Over the years, DeVos has seen opposition from Republicans on vouchers and school choice. Most notably, Scott Romney told The New York Times in June that her idea of a free market for schools wasn’t working.
“This is a public service, this isn’t just a business,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t believe in the free market for police or fire.” (Romney backtracked on this comment following her nomination, telling CNN that he thinks DeVos will make a great secretary of education.)
And in 2002, the Grand Rapids Press reported that her “near-obsession” with school reform caused her to resign her position as chairwoman of the state GOP because of “a rift with Gov. Engler over the voucher issue. DeVos quit to devote more time to the state referendum on vouchers — a proposal Engler feared could hurt the GOP by driving up Democratic turnout,” the newspaper reported.
Senate Republicans, according to committee aides, plan to defend DeVos’ support for charter schools by emphasizing the fact that many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have backed those same kinds of schools.
“Mrs. DeVos’ support for charter schools and giving low-income parents the kinds of school choice that wealthier parents have is in the mainstream of those who want better public schools,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the committee.
Committee aides noted ahead of DeVos’ hearing that not only did Hillary Clinton back charter schools at one time (specifically those were non-profit) and her husband — former President Bill Clinton — in 1997 called for creating 3,000 charter schools by 2002.
Additionally, Republicans will note that Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s first education secretary, and John King, Obama’s current education secretary, both supported charter schools at one time. King founded and ran a charter school before heading up the Department of Education, an aide noted.
The director of one of DeVos’ foundations, the Great Lakes Education Project, told CNN last year that she would be a good education secretary should Trump want to follow through on his campaign suggestion that the Department of Education should be shuttered.
“I may cut Department of Education,” Trump said in October 2015, a comment that electrified conservative education advocates who believe states should be in charge of schooling children.
Role of department in LBGTQ issues
In the last few weeks, DeVos has taken calls from Sen. Jim Lankford, a vocal critic of the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which handles some of the most controversial issues, like sexual assault on campuses and LGBTQ issues. Lankford has accused the office of overreach and abuse.
Alison Kiss, executive director of The Clery Center for Security on Campus, said that these contacts have raised concerns.
“If she were confirmed, she could potentially not name someone to be assistant secretary for civil rights,” Kiss said, adding that shuttering the office would “really dial back progress” and say that the Trump administration is “accepting” behavior like sexual assault on campuses.
Without a clear outline of her views issues where LGBT issues and education meet, many advocacy groups have been left with only DeVos’s contribution record to guess her personal beliefs. And that’s left many people skeptical. Over the years, she’s given to groups that are considered anti-LGBT, promote conversion therapy and religious liberty legislation.
David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ equality, said they hope to get clarity out of the confirmation hearings on some of the more recently controversial issues.
“We come necessary not in favor or opposed (to DeVos), but with some really serious concerns, and we view the hearing as an opportunity for her to lay out her views and her beliefs, but even more important after getting a sense of where she stands,” Stacy said.
Like several of Trump’s cabinet picks, DeVos’s tremendous wealth, investments and political contributions have raised questions, and are likely to be a major point of questioning from Democrats.
According to The Wall Street Journal, DeVos is an “indirect investor in online-lending company Social Finance Inc., a startup whose fortunes hinge in part on policies crafted by the department Ms. DeVos would run.”
DeVos was also the director of the Ohio pro-voucher organization All Children Matter when in 2008 it violated campaign finance laws by sending $870,000 in campaign contributions from its Virginia PAC to its unregistered Ohio PAC, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The result was a $5.3 million fine which has gone unpaid.
The Trump transition claims that is because the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has left it null and void.
“The courts ruled on this matter many years ago, noting that none of the officers or board members of All Children Matter were liable for any fines,” said a spokeswoman for the Trump transition.
The Detroit News reported that the DeVos’s, with a net-worth of $5 billion — estimated by Forbes — were partially denied a tax break on their $7.8 million compound near Grand Rapids. The exemption they claimed kept $306,000 from public schools between 2009 and 2016, and they were forced to pay back some of the money.