WASHINGTON (CN) – During a grueling confirmation hearing that crept into the night Tuesday, Senate Democrats did everything in their power to flunk the charter school supporter nominated by President-elect Donald Trump for education secretary.
From guns in schools to sexual assault on campuses to safeguarding the rights of disabled, minority or LGBT students, Democratic senators were merciless with Betsy DeVos.
Testifying for more than three hours before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the millionaire businesswoman admitted that neither she nor her children have ever personally attended a public school. This puts her in the minority of the United States, where 90 percent of families send their children to public school.
Republican senators lobbed softballs at DeVos for the bulk of the hearing, using the majority of their time to praise the nominee’s acquisition of wealth and charity work.
If confirmed, DeVos will oversee a $70 billion education budget and federal oversight of more than 95,000 public schools.
Several senators picked at Devos’ lack of experience coupled with her penchant for charter school support, history of donations to anti-LGBT organizations that promote conversion therapy, as well as her open criticism of public schools and teachers.
When pressed, DeVos denied ever saying that “government sucks” and that public school teachers should be fired more regularly.
Before firing off a series of questions at the nominee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren described the enormous pressure awaiting America’s next education secretary.
“The Department of Education is in charge of making sure that the $150 billion that we invest in students each year gets into the right hands … the secretary of education is responsible for managing a nearly $1 trillion bank and distributing $30 billion in Pell grants,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “The financial futures of an entire generation of young people depend on your department getting that right.”
Between clenching her fists and jotting down notes, DeVos smiled as Warren began.
“Have you overseen a trillion-dollar loan program?” Warren asked.
DeVos replied that she had not.
“Have you overseen a billion-dollar loan program?” Warren asked.
DeVos again said no.
“So, no experience in managing a program like this,” Warren said. “How about participating in one? I think it’s important that the person in charge of a financial aid program understands what it’s like for students and their families who are struggling to pay for college.”
DeVos responded that she had never needed financial aid, but knew of people who had.
Over the course of the hearing, when DeVos would run into an unfamiliar territory, she would offer deference to the Trump administration. Saying more than three times that she agreed with the president-elect’s position on education and that she would follow his lead.
Warren responded in kind with a series of questions pertaining to higher education.
Referencing the president-elect’s recent $25 million settlement of fraud claims by former students of the defunct Trump University, Warren asked DeVos how she planned to protect taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse.
Short on specifics, DeVos promised to be vigilant and suggested that other members of the department would “make sure that federal monies are being used properly.”
Dissatisfied with the response, Warren pressed forward, asking DeVos if she would enforce rules already on the books that prevent institutional fraud.
After promising only to review the rules, Warren slammed DeVos saying that “swindlers and crooks would be doing backflips” if listening.
“I don’t understand reviewing it,” Warren said. “There are rules already in place. I’m not sure how you can’t be sure of why to enforce them. If confirmed, you will be the cop on the beat, and if you can’t commit to use the tools already available to you, I don’t see how you can be the secretary of education.”
The nominee’s inexperience did not appear to faze committee chairman Lamar Alexander. Keeping a tight ship, the Tennessee Republican cited tradition and precedent as he limited the questions to one round of five minutes for each senator.
No Republican senator made a fuss over DeVos’ failure to complete her ethics review. DeVos is the first of Trump’s picks to enter a confirmation hearing without completing one. Democrats were quick to point out that historically, Republicans had refused hearings on the same basis.
Sen. Bernie Sanders also took DeVos to task, asking her if she would even be in the room had she not donated roughly $200 million to the GOP over the years. DeVos defended her history, citing only her efforts to provide parents and children with school choice.
The Independent senator of Vermont also pressed DeVos for cooperation on making college tuition free. DeVos bristled and resisted promises to collaborate.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota also dressed down the nominee, appearing to catch DeVos off guard as he grilled her for nearly 10 minutes on the nuts and bolts of student outcomes.
When DeVos stumbled and searched for a way to answer Franken’s question, the senator turned to the committee chairman and reiterated pleas for more time for senators to ask questions.
“I think we’re selling our kids short by not being able to have a debate on this,” Franken said.