Trump nominee expected to face questions about advocacy for school vouchers

What we’ll be listening for at the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Philissa Cramer on January 9, 2017

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren keeps her promises, Betsy DeVos is in for a challenging confirmation hearing next week.

DeVos, who President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to run the U.S. Department of Education, will likely face questions from Democrats about her advocacy for school vouchers and her long history of philanthropic and political giving during the hearing, which has been postponed until Jan. 17.

With a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, Cabinet picks are expected to be confirmed without much trouble. But the hearing will be the first real chance for Americans to learn about the Michigan philanthropist’s vision for their schools.

Here’s what we’ll be listening for:

How she wants to improve education for students in traditional public schools, and whose job she thinks that is.

DeVos has a strong track record of lobbying for charter schools and vouchers that allow families to use public funding to pay private school tuition. But she’s stayed mum on many issues relevant to students attending traditional public schools.

How often should students take standardized tests? What does DeVos think those test scores should be used for? Should federal officials continue to push for schools to suspend fewer students, or for states to improve education for English language learners? The U.S. Department of Education has weighed in on all of these questions over time, so senators might want to know how DeVos would approach them.

The future she envisions for the department she’s been chosen to lead.

The broad, bipartisan consensus about improving education that has held for years is is falling apart, creating an opening for some Republicans who don’t support the very existence of a federal education department. They have begun to outline a legal, practical roadmap for dismantling it. Would DeVos support any of those moves?

How a big voucher plan might work, and her plans for the education budget.

Trump has promised a $20 billion school choice plan for students from poor families, with the money coming from a combination of federal and state sources. Beyond that, he hasn’t offered many details.

If that is her vision, too, would she use money from other programs, like Title I funds meant for educating poor students, to do it? Or should it work like Indiana’s voucher program, which she has influenced? That state’s program, the biggest in the nation, increasingly serves students from middle-class families and those who never attended public school.

Concerns about her many potential conflicts of interest.

As philanthropists, DeVos and her husband have given away more than a billion dollars. Her education policy political action committee has handed out even more. She has stepped down from the PAC’s leadership and provided substantial information about her finances and campaign contributions, but her official ethics review is ongoing. Senators could reasonably ask whether those longstanding ties can so easily be severed, and whether any of them could continue to influence her judgment. (On the other hand, she’s also given to many of them.)

Whether she plans to make changes at the Office of Civil Rights.

The Obama administration bulked up this office within the federal education department. Some civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale it back, and Politico recently reported that DeVos had spoken about the office with Republican Sen. James Lankford, who is skeptical about its work to ensure transgender students have certain protections in schools.

Her reflections on Detroit and Michigan schools, where she has wielded heavy influence.

DeVos and her PAC have advocated for the dismantling of Michigan’s largest school district. Does she believe that the country in general would be better off with a system of disconnected charter schools?

She’s also worked to protect the state’s charter schools from additional regulation. Critics — including current U.S. Education Secretary John King — say the lack of enforced quality standards for Michigan charter schools hurts students. Does she acknowledge an issue?

How she’ll fill in the gaps in her education CV.

DeVos hasn’t worked in a school, and she didn’t attend or send her children to public schools, either. Senators, Warren included, have promised to ask why she thinks she’s right for the job.

This story has been updated to reflect the new date for DeVos’ confirmation hearing.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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