Charter-school philanthropist and U.S. Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos pledged to “be a strong advocate for great public schools” at her confirmation hearing, while facing tough questions from Senate Democrats on her past characterization of public schools as “a dead end” and her statement that “government sucks.”

Ms. DeVos testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Com­mittee Jan. 17, and many of the committee’s Democratic members, including Minne­sota Sen. Al Franken, said there were “serious concerns” about her aptitude for the role.

‘Unqualified,’ Unprepared

In a statement released shortly after the hearing concluded, Mr. Franken said he would not support her confirmation because he believed she was not qualified to run the Department of Education.

“One of the most-pressing challenges we face as lawmakers, Federal officials, and most importantly as adults, is to help provide each and every student with the education they deserve,” he said. “And I do not believe that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire donor that Donald Trump tapped to run the Education Department, has what it takes to meet that challenge.”

Mr. Franken said that her lack of experience with public schools—neither she nor any of her children attended one—and her advocacy for charter and religious schools were of concern, and that the final straw came during a discussion about how student success should be gauged.

The Senator asked if success should be measured on grade-level proficiency or on student growth, and Ms. DeVos struggled with the answer.

A Misunderstanding?

“I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area,” she said.

Mr. Franken retorted, “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency. I’m talking about the debate between proficiency and growth and what your thoughts are on that,” he said. “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years…it surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie San­ders delved into her political activism, grilling Ms. DeVos on her family’s $200 million in donations to the GOP.

“Do you think that, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions,” the former Democratic presidential candidate asked, “that you would be sitting here today?”

Won’t Be Pinned Down

Several times during the hearing, Ms. DeVos avoided giving “yes” or “no” answers to lawmakers’ questions, much to the chagrin of the committee’s Democrats. She frequently said she “looked forward to working with” lawmakers on issues, but offered little in the way of policy proposals, even when she was pressed for specifics.

She also said she thought many issues—from guns in schools to the treatment of students with disabilities or other special needs—should be handled by the states, not the Federal Government.

Ms. DeVos also rebuffed an attempt to secure a pledge that she would not support legislation diverting Federal funds from traditional public to charter schools.

She has been a staunch supporter of charters, vouchers and school choice, which would allow parents to use public funds to cover tuition at a private or charter school. But critics say such programs siphon funds from the public-school system, leaving students who remain there in a much-worse situation.

Many of the committee’s Democratic members hammered her lack of public-school experience as a disqualifier, while her supporters said her “outsider” status would be an asset as they sought to implement education reforms.

Fears She’d Depress Morale

Ex-Democratic Vice Presidential nominee and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine cited a 2015 speech by Ms. DeVos where she called public schools “a dead end” and said that “government really sucks.”

“The nation deserves a Secretary of Education who will be a champion for kids, parents, state and local control and outcomes. I also think the nation deserves a Secretary who is a champion for public education,” he said. “I worry about the effect of a leader who believes government sucks on the morale of the workforce. Teachers and others do better when their morale is high.”

He also said he thought any school—public, charter or private—that received Federal funds should be held to the same accountability and outcome standards.

Ms. DeVos agreed with some of his points, saying she would support “great” public schools and Teachers, but stopped short of saying she believed in uniform accountability standards.

Unions: Agenda ‘Disastrous’

Mr. Kaine’s criticism of her was not an uncommon one—Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents employees at the City University of New York, said in an email to members that Ms. DeVos “is unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education and has spent her career attempting to dismantle public schools.” She called her push for vouchers and charters “disastrous” for K-12 education.

On Jan. 19, two days after the hearing, PSC joined several activist groups including the Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Educational Justice in a protest march against Ms. DeVos and six other Cabinet nominees employed by Goldman Sachs, as part of a national “Reclaim Our Schools Day of Action,” complete with chants like “stand with us, join the fight, public schools are a human right!”

In a speech 10 days earlier, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called Ms. DeVos “the most anti-public-education nominee in the history of the Department of Education.”

Republicans on the committee, though, brushed off the criticism. The HELP committee Chairman, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, called Ms. DeVos “an excellent choice,” and said her views on school choice were “in the mainstream.”

‘Lucky to Have Her’

“Would her critics be happier if she had spent her time and her money trying to deny children from low-income families the opportunity to attend schools that wealthy families can choose rather than trying to help them?” Mr. Alexander asked. “We are fortunate that Betsy DeVos is President-elect’s Trump nominee for U.S. Education Secretary. I am going to do my best to support her confirmation and look forward to working with her.”

The HELP committee must approve Ms. DeVos’ nomination before it proceeds to the Senate floor for a vote.

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