Betsy DeVos has gone viral — and not in a good way.
After her bumpy confirmation hearing Tuesday night, President-elect Donald Trump’s Education secretary pick was a social media sensation Wednesday. Video snippets showed DeVos struggling to answer questions about the best way to measure student performance. Her suggestion that allowing states to permit guns in and around schools could help protect against grizzly bears was relentlessly mocked on Twitter. Perhaps most damaging was DeVos’ suggestion that states should handle enforcement of a federal law that protects the civil rights of children with disabilities.
Several special education advocates said her responses hardened their concerns about her — and showed her unfamiliarity with important topics in education.
“At this point, we are definitely sounding the alarm of concern,” said Denise Marshall, executive Director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “It’s clear she has no clue about the requirements under the law. That’s a dangerous thing.”
Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disabilities Rights Network, said that what DeVos struggled to answer “seems to be a basic piece of information that anybody in the education community would have.”
Despite the negative buzz, DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and education activist from Michigan, has widespread backing among Republicans. It’s unlikely her performance will threaten her ability to get confirmed by the education committee and later the full Senate.
But the performance did appear to harden the opposition from some previously uncommitted Senate Democrats. Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a past supporter of school vouchers, issued a statement saying her testimony raised “a number of concerns.”
Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, a red state Democrat, retweeted some of DeVos’ exchanges with Senate Democrats. “After watching my colleagues question DeVos it is now crystal clear why the Chairman limited questioning,” McCaskill tweeted, suggesting that Lamar Alexander’s decision to curb lawmakers’ time to one round of questions protected her from more embarrassing exchanges.
Montana Democrat Jon Tester referenced DeVos’ comments on special education in a statement to POLITICO explaining why he had decided to oppose her nomination.
“It is becoming clear that Mrs. DeVos doesn’t believe we should ensure that students with special needs have the same access to a quality public education as every other student,” Tester said. “After our meeting and her hearing, I have little confidence that she will fight for more special education resources for public schools and give every student a fair shot at success.
Even before the hearing, DeVos was a top target of Democrats. And many special education advocates have long been concerned about DeVos’ views on special education, in part because she’s such a strong proponent of charter schools and voucher programs.
Charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of special education students than traditional public schools, and there have been complaints that some push out special need students because they are more difficult to serve. In turn, in many states where school vouchers exist, students who attend a private school give up many of their rights under federal education law, Marshall said.
During the hearing, one exchange on special education law prompted some gasps from spectators in an overflowed room. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) had followed up to an earlier question by stressing to DeVos that “federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.”
“Were you unaware that it is federal law?” Hassan asked.
“I may have confused it,” DeVos said.
Earlier, Tim Kaine had asked DeVos whether all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“I think that is a matter better left to the states,” DeVos responded.
The grizzly bear comment came in response to questions from Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) about gun control in schools. DeVos said decisions on gun access should be made by local and state governments. She then referred to a small rural school in Wapiti, Wyo., where earlier in the hearing, Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) had said the school had to ward off grizzly bears.
“I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos said.
The exchange on testing came in response to a question from Al Franken (D-Minn.) on the issue of student growth and proficiency when it comes to standardized testing.
Franken asked for her thoughts on using tests to measure whether students are making progress, as opposed to focusing on whether students meet a particular proficiency standard.
“I think if I am understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancements that they’re making in each subject area,” DeVos said.
“Well that’s growth. That’s not proficiency,” Franken shot back. He added, “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. … It surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”
The criticism online of DeVos’ performance was at times blistering — even among some Republicans.
“Ppl I respect, think highly of Betsy Devos. But clips of her confirmation hearing made me want to cover my eyes. Not prepared for hard q’s,” Republican strategist Ana Navarro tweeted.
DeVos’ supporters dismissed the criticism of her performance and said the hearing was dominated by political theatre.
“It was clear that the goal of the Democrats was to not allow her to answer the questions and then criticize her for a lack of answer or what they saw as an incorrect answer,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of Great Lakes Education Project, a “school choice” advocacy organization founded by DeVos and her husband. “There was definitely a ‘gotcha’ mindset.”
Naeyaert had a simple explanation for DeVos’ much-criticized answer on special education laws: “I think she misheard a portion of the question and she clearly corrected herself.”
Ed Patru, a spokesman for a group of allies supporting DeVos’ confirmation, said Wednesday that DeVos “absolutely believes states must adhere to federal law as it pertains to students with special needs.”
Patru said that DeVos is also “deeply sympathetic” to “the many parents of kids with special needs kids for whom [federal law] is not working correctly because of the uneven way in which it is being implemented.”
Alexander has said he wants the Senate’s education committee to vote on DeVos’ confirmation next Tuesday. But he’s said it won’t hold the vote if a review by the Office of Government Ethics related to DeVos’ financial holdings isn’t complete by Friday — Trump’s swearing-in day.
Following the hearing, Alexander said DeVos handled herself with “great pleasantness” and is well qualified.
“I believe she will be confirmed,” Alexander told reporters.
That’s not good news to Christina Mills, a board member on the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund who is physically disabled.
DeVos’ answers on special education confirmed Mills’ suspicions about her — and she said Wednesday she planned to write senators telling them to oppose her nomination.
“It certainly made it more solid. It solidified what she was all about. That’s for sure,” Mills said of her opposition to DeVos.[“source-ndtv”]