DFER’s Senate Confirmation Hearing Questions for Betsy DeVos

2016 Presidential Elections

January 12, 2017

Originally posted on dfer.org 

From DFER President Shavar Jeffries: 

Betsy DeVos speaks at a Trump rally in Michigan on Dec. 9. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Betsy DeVos speaks at a Trump rally in Michigan on Dec. 9. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)


On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate HELP Committee will convene the confirmation hearing for Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, conservative activist Betsy DeVos.

From what we know about the education agenda of President-elect Trump and Mrs. DeVos, we are deeply troubled. There is simply too much at stake to allow a rollback of the hard-won progress we’ve made over the last eight years under President Obama. What we hope to hear on Tuesday is a strategy for improving outcomes – one that puts kids and communities first.

You can read our full statement on the hearing, here, and below are our questions for Mrs. DeVos.  

Senate Confirmation Hearing Questions for Education Secretary-Designate Betsy DeVos


Obama Legacy

Under President Obama’s leadership, and thanks to the incredible work of Secretaries King and Duncan, our kids have made incredible strides over the past eight years.

After pairing increased federal resources with common-sense policy reforms, we’re now seeing a record number of students graduating high school, fewer children stuck in chronically underperforming schools, and more families empowered with high-quality public educational options.

Despite this incredible progress, there’s still much more to be done to ensure that the promise of a high-quality public education is a reality for every child. But it’s hard to argue with these gains in student success.

  • Question: What do you make of the education legacy that President Obama leaves behind?
  • Question: Is there anything that, in your view, the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education have done right that you are hoping to continue or emulate in the incoming administration?


Trump Effect

In a post-election report entitled “The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools,” the Southern Poverty Law Center presented results of a survey of more than 10,000 educators and school administrators and found:

  • Ninety percent of educators reported that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact;
  • A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families;
  • Over 2,500 educators described specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric. These incidents include graffiti (e.g., swastikas), assaults on students and teachers, property damage, fights and threats of violence.

Some have called this the “Trump Effect.”

  • Question: Are you concerned at all that President-elect Trump’s bigoted rhetoric is deeply affecting children across the nation – making students who fall into one of the many groups of people that Trump has attacked feel like they don’t belong in their own communities and in their own schools?
  • Question: Whether it’s attacking others over social media, mocking disabled reporters, threatening to ban people based on their race or religion, or his well-documented behavior against women – what should parents tell their children to explain the soon-to-be president’s behavior?

The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education has stated that if President-elect Donald Trump ever attempted to force L.A. to turn over its vast stores of student information against kids or their families in any way, they will “resist that attempt to the fullest extent provided by the law.” Many other districts have made similar statements.

  • Question: Is this an area where you feel that local control should trump federal mandates?
  • Question: Or do you plan to support efforts by the Trump administration to force schools to divulge confidential information about students and their parents?
  • Question: Even if you have no jurisdiction in this matter as Secretary of Education, what, as the holder of the highest bully pulpit in the land when it comes to U.S. education, would you tell districts such as Los Angeles Unified and others about resisting efforts to turn over student records to the federal government?
  • Question: Do you think Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be given free and unfettered access to school campuses and students’ classrooms?
  • Question: Would you prefer that federal authorities round-up undocumented students at school? Or that they do so off school grounds?

A 1982 Supreme Court decision – Plyler v. Doe – obligates K-12 schools to serve undocumented children living within their borders.

  • Question: Are you familiar with Plyler v. Doe?
  • Question: Do you agree or disagree with the Court’s ruling?


Trump Campaign Promises – Private School Choice

On the campaign trail, President-elect Trump proposed a $20 billion so-called “school choice” plan that would divert public funds to private and parochial schools.

It sounded as if President-elect Trump planned to pay for this proposal by gutting nearly 30 percent of the federal education budget, including Title I dollars that serve the country’s poorest public school children.

  • Question: Is $20 billion still the operative funding level for your school choice proposal?
  • Question: If not, what is the operative funding level?
  • Question: Is this the only means by which you plan to funnel massive amounts of public funds to private schools or are there other policies along these lines that you also plan to pursue?
  • Question: What are your plans for funding other vital federal programs that students from historically disadvantaged groups depend on such as Title I and IDEA?


Every Student Succeeds Act

Last year, Congress passed the long overdue reauthorization of our national education law with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – and the important duty of ESSA implementation will fall to the incoming administration and Education Department on day one.

As you know, one of the hallmarks of ESSA is that it gives the states more flexibility about how to meet standards, but there still remains a strong federal role in enforcing accountability and ensuring that every child in this country is getting the high-quality public education he or she deserves.

  • Question: As our next Education Secretary, what would your priorities be regarding ESSA implementation?
  • Question: Do you plan to monitor and enforce bright-line statutory provisions, such as:
    • Annual, statewide assessments in English/Language Arts and Math in grades 3-8?
    • The identification of schools in the bottom 5% of each state as in need of improvement?
    • The identification of high schools with graduation rates below 67% as in need of improvement?
    • The identification of schools where students from historically disadvantaged groups lag behind their more advantaged peers as in need of improvement?


U.S. Department of Education

The President-elect has often intimated that he would like to eliminate any federal role in education and dismantle the Department of Education.

  • Question: What do you envision the federal role in education – as it relates to ESSA and the department’s work more broadly – will look like under your leadership?
  • Question: In your conversations with the President-elect, do you think that an elimination of the federal role in education will come to fruition?
    • If so, do you think it would be a positive or negative development?
    • If not, why – and does such rhetoric concern you, seeing as it undermines the position you are seeking to fill and the authority of the office?
  • Question: Which past U.S. Secretary of Education do you most admire and why?
  • Question: Will you demand that, prior to appointment, political appointees pledge that they will not work in an industry related to or significantly subject to U.S. Department of Education regulation for three or more years upon leaving federal service?
    • If so, how will you ensure compliance with any such pledge?
    • If not, do you have any plans for restricting the “revolving door” between public service and private interest?


Betsy DeVos’ Record on Education

  • Question: Whether it’s a traditional public school, public charter school, parochial or private school, how would you as Secretary define “good” or “bad” in concrete terms?
  • Question: How do tests and other objective measures figure into determining or not whether a school is “good?”

In a column in the Washington Post, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt recommended to you that in a system of federally funded school choice “every school would have to measure its children’s progress with identical tests, so that parents could compare.”

  • Question: Do you agree or disagree with Hiatt?
  • Question: What, if any, actions would you take to push states and/or districts to turn around or otherwise address any “bad” schools?
  • Question: How will we know if this “good” education is a reality for every child in every neighborhood?
  • Question: What, in your opinion, can one conclude from the available research about what makes a good school?
  • Question: What’s your vision for education reform in suburban and/or rural areas where small numbers of students, geographic distances, and the lack of transportation make school choice a non-viable policy option?
  • Question: Which education policy researchers do you particularly admire?
  • Question: What would be the top 3 books you’d recommend to anyone who wants to understand the most important policies in making schools great?


Michigan Education Record – Vouchers, Accountability, Standards

 In early 2016, when the Michigan state legislature faced a decision about whether or not to bail out Detroit Public Schools, you called for Michigan to “retire DPS and provide new and better funding options that focus on Detroit schoolchildren” and that “we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids.”

  • Question: As Secretary, would you support dissolving local school districts – as your advocated for in Detroit – and leaving them to private, free market forces rather than intervening or otherwise working to rebuild the public system through evidence-based models?
  • Question: Douglas N. Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University, said that what happened in Michigan was a triumph of “ideology over evidence.” In hindsight, do you see in any truth in that characterization?
  • Question: Do you really think that free markets and parental choice alone can drive quality?
  • Question: Where is that true anywhere in the U.S. – in or outside the education sector?
  • Question: Public school choice is working in communities across the country – why did you choose not to follow the lead of those systems in Detroit? As Secretary, why not invest in public school choice and expand the number of high-performing public charter schools, just as Obama administration Secretaries Arne Duncan and John King have done?

Even strong school choice supporters have been critical of Detroit. Robin Lake, Director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a group that supports a portfolio approach that provides school leaders a great deal of autonomy and gives parents a range of school options, said this of Michigan in a piece entitled “Will DeVos Learn From Detroit’s School Choice Mistakes?”:

“Michigan created a fast-growing set of charter schools largely run by for-profit management companies and overseen by a fragmented array of colleges and universities that seemed more interested in collecting oversight fees than in ensuring the schools were any good.”

  • Question: Do you agree or disagree with statement?
  • If disagree: are you saying that not a single oversight entity put its own interests ahead of public schoolchildren?

Lake goes on to say:

“Parents are in no position to drive their children across town to a better school, or to deal with a chaotic and confusing marketplace of schools. As one woman told us, “Listen, it’s all I can do to make sure my son gets to school every day. The state or city should make sure that school is good.”

  • Question: Isn’t that a fundamental flaw in the logic of a “markets only” approach to education reform?
  • Question: Don’t even middle and upper class parents have a hard time figuring out the array of school choices available to them?

More from Lake:

“More and better oversight is needed. Fast. Far too many failing schools, both charter and district, remain open in Detroit. In some neighborhoods, every single school is graded “F.” Too many schools remain open, period. Most schools serve too few students and therefore get too little funding to provide an ambitious instructional program. National school networks with proven results can’t attract enough students to make it worth their while to open new schools in Detroit.”

  • Question: Do you agree or disagree with Ms. Lake’s analysis?
  • Question: How many “F” schools remain open in Detroit?
  • Question: Is there any school in Detroit open now that you think should be closed?
  • Question: Is there a nationally recognized school network with a record of high performance that you’d like to see come to Detroit?
  • Question: How many schools in Detroit enroll so few students that their test results can’t be reported due to an insufficient number of students (i.e., “N” or “sample” sizes)?
  • Question: How many schools don’t report test results for all or most students because too few are enrolled for an entire school year?
  • Question: What do you think is the minimum number of students needed for a school to have the critical mass of resources needed to fully educate them?
  • Question: What would you have done differently in Detroit knowing what you know now?


Higher Education

There are over 100 four year colleges with first time, full time student dropout rates of 80 percent or greater.

  • Question: What should be done to help those colleges improve?
  • Question: What if they don’t get appreciably better after a certain period of time?  What should happen then in terms of U.S. Department of Education stewardship of taxpayer dollars?
  • Question: Is the U.S. Department of Education a predatory lender?  If so, what do you plan to do about it?  If not, how do you define who is and isn’t a predatory student loan provider?
  • Question: Should universities and university-affiliated foundations be required to spend out at least five percent of endowment funds per year as is required of other foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?
  • Question: Do you support any direct or indirect limitation on public or private college tuition and fee growth?

Concerns have been raised about your family’s derivative financial interest in the success of Social Finance, Incorporated (more commonly known as the SoFi student loan company).

  • Question: Will you and your family divest from any and all business and philanthropic interests that could benefit directly or indirectly from your position at the U.S. Department of Education?
  • Question: How can we be assured that you will not take action that undermines the operational capacity, financial health, or long-term viability of the direct loan program?