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At DeVos' Senate Hearing, Questions Of Choice, Charters, 'Other Options'

The education philosophy of Betsy DeVos boils down to one word: choice. The billionaire has used her money to support the expansion of public charter schools and private school vouchers.

For more than three hours on Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to run the Education Department handled tough questions on school choice, charters and the future of the nation's schools from the Senate committee that handles education.

In her opening remarks, DeVos made clear she doesn't think traditional public schools are a good fit for every child.

"Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child," she said. "And they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based or any other combination."

The problem, say DeVos' critics, is her faith in the free market, and that she thinks parents should be able to use public-school dollars to pay for alternatives outside the system.

That led to this exchange with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.:

Murray: "Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?"

DeVos: "Senator, thanks for that question. I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students. And we acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. And I'm hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them."

Murray: "I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education."

DeVos: "I guess I wouldn't characterize it in that way."

Murray: "Well," she said, laughing, "okay."

Congress passed a big, bipartisan education law just a year ago — and, as the committee's Republican chairman, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, pointed out during the hearing, vouchers didn't make the cut.

So he asked DeVos if, as secretary, she would try to push them onto states anyway. Her answer: "No. I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation, but certainly not any kind of mandate from within the department."

Alexander is a strong supporter of DeVos, and began the hearing by saying he believes she is "on our childrens' side."

Also on DeVos' side: former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who introduced her and swung back at teachers unions and others who oppose her, in part, because the billionaire has never taught in, managed or attended a public school.

In Lieberman's words, it's a positive that she's not part of the "education establishment."

"Honestly, I believe that today that's one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job," he said.

The committee's Democrats were frustrated not just with some of DeVos' answers, but also with Chairman Alexander — first because he chose to hold the hearing before the Office of Government Ethics could finish its review of her financial holdings, looking for conflicts of interest, and second because Alexander held senators to a strict, five-minute time limit, prompting one of his colleagues to lament what he called "a rush job."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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