Trump education pick Betsy DeVos pushes vouchers, parries questions over ethics

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Education Department, stood firm about her long held beliefs that parents — not the government — should be able to choose where to send children to school, pledging Tuesday to push voucher programs should she be confirmed to lead the nation's education system.

DeVos has been a political heavyweight for decades, spending millions to advance conservative causes in her home state of Michigan and across the country. Much of her fortune had gone towards backing politicians and organizations that encourage voucher programs, allowing parents to send their children to private schools and helping them pay for it.

"It's time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve. Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child," DeVos said, adding that she will push for more access to charter, home and religious schools.

DeVos said that she would be a "a strong advocate for great public schools," but would support "a parent's right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative."

DeVos' support for voucher programs are no surprise to Democrats on the committee, however, and while that view will likely be questioned on Tuesday, it is a host of other issues where DeVos is largely a blank slate that senators on the committee plan to probe.

Conflicts of interest

Tuesday offered DeVos a chance fill in her own personal beliefs on a host of controversial education issues, with Democrats particularly interested in her ties to education companies and possible accusations of conflict-of-interest between DeVos and those she will seek to regulate.

These concerns have been exacerbated by the fact that DeVos' ethics paperwork, a requirement for anyone seeking a Cabinet post, has not yet been cleared by the Office of Government Ethics.

While the paperwork is not required to be approved before a hearing, as a Republican committee aide noted, it is required before the committee votes, meaning the delay in paperwork approval could delay DeVos' confirmation.

DeVos' paperwork was submitted to the government ethics office 36 days ago, on December 12, and that she has "responded to all follow up questions in a timely way, including over weekends and the holidays," a Trump transition spokesman told CNN Tuesday.

That did not satisfy Democrats.

"I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics," Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's top Democrat, said Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed his frustration with Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander said there would only be one round of senator questions. Schumer said she was controversial and Democrats need more than one five-minute period to ask her questions, adding that Alexander should schedule a second hearing and warned if he doesn't if could impact how Democrats deal with confirming other nominees.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the panel aimed 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.

Standing in between two powerful and wealthy conservative families, DeVos 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 donated to at least four of the senators who heard her testimony on Tuesday.

Franken questions qualifications

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, questioned whether DeVos has the "breadth and depth" of knowledge to serve as education secretary.

Franken started his turn at questioning by asking DeVos whether she believes in judging children on growth or proficiency. DeVos stumbled on the question and seemingly didn't know that this was a debate within the education community.

"It surprises me that you don't know this issue," Franken said, later adding that he is, in fact, "not that surprised that you don't know this issue."

Franken then turned to DeVos' donation to Focus on the Family, an organization that believes conversion therapy for LGBT. Franken directly asked DeVos whether she "still believes" in conversion therapy.

"I have never believed in that," DeVos said, adding, "I fully embrace equality."

DeVos and her family -- through three family foundations -- have given more than $10 million to Focus on the Family, according to watchdog groups.

Franken then directed his comments at Alexander, saying DeVos' answers show "why we want more questions" to see whether DeVos has the "breadth and depth of knowledge who has that important job."

Sexual assault

Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania asked DeVos whether she will commit to upholding the Obama administration's 2011 guidance on Title IX to adjudicate campus sexual assault.

DeVos would not commit to doing that.

"It would be premature for me to do that today," she said.

DeVos, the mother of four, said the issue of campus sexual assault "is really piqued on this issue," but added that she would work to get read in on the issue once she gets to the Education Department.

Prospects

Although questions remain for DeVos, it is unlikely -- given the make up of the Senate -- that her confirmation will be killed by Democrats.

Even so, education activists and Democratic senators have slammed for, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren put it, "lack of experience in public education."

"She has no connections to public schools," Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federal of Teachers, told CNN on Tuesday. "What she wants to do is actually drain the public system of dollars it desperately needs."

Weingarten's charge stems from the fact that neither DeVos nor any of her children ever attended public school and that the Michigan Republican has spent much of her wealth to back candidates and organizations that were pro-voucher, allowing some families to decide where to send their children, including religious schools.

DeVos' position, despite Democratic disapproval, is in line with what Trump espoused on the campaign trail.

"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 Alexander.

Like several of Trump's Cabinet picks, DeVos has tremendous wealth.

Forbes estimates DeVos and her husband Dick DeVos are worth upwards of $5 billion and told the panel Tuesday "collectively (it) is possible"her family has given around $200 million to Republican causes over the years.

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