Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, just failed her first test. At her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday night, the billionaire conservative philanthropist and “school choice” advocate appeared unprepared to answer straightforward questions about school reform, and she aired extreme views that could cause headaches for the incoming administration.
The worst of it began when Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, asked DeVos about a longtime debate in education policy over whether students should be evaluated on their academic “growth” or “proficiency.” The nominee seemed stumped:
“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.
“Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency,” Franken replied. “I’m talking about the debate between proficiency and growth and what your thoughts are on that.”
DeVos said she was “just asking to clarify,” and then Franken really pounced.
“It surprises me that you don’t know this issue,” he said, “and Mr. Chairman, I think this a good reason for us to have more questions.”
To the average American tuning in on C-SPAN, this moment might have seemed like know-it-all nitpicking from Franken. DeVos’s answer suggests she’s not well-versed on policy, and begs the question why she wasn’t better prepared.
It wasn’t an isolated incident either. When another progressive pit bull, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, got her turn, she interrogated DeVos on how, specifically, the Trump administration would guard against waste, fraud, and abuse at for-profit colleges.
“The individuals with whom I work in the department will ensure that federal monies are used properly and appropriately,” the nominee replied.
“So, you’re going to subcontract making sure what happened with universities that cheat students doesn’t happen anymore?” Warren shot back.
“No, I didn’t say that,” DeVos murmured.
Warren pressed again for concrete ideas, but DeVos came up empty. When the senator suggested DeVos simply enforce existing regulations—in particular the “gainful employment” rule shielding students from crippling amounts of debt—DeVos wouldn’t commit to that. She said she’d need to see whether the regulation was “actually achieving what the intentions are.”
“I don’t understand about reviewing it,” Warren said. “We talked about this in my office.... You know, swindlers and crooks are out there doing back flips when they hear an answer like that.”
Democrats might be doing back flips, too. With Republicans in control of the Senate, DeVos’s confirmation is all but a foregone conclusion. But her grilling Tuesday night yielded more than a few exchanges that could prove politically problematic. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine asked if she supports “equal accountability for all schools receiving federal funding”; she refused to say. When pressed by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut on guns in schools, she said, “I think that is best left to locales and states to decide.”
“If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?” Murphy asked.
“I will support what the president-elect does,” she said.
But if Trump and the Republican Congress move to ban gun-free school zones, that would be a federal decision, not a state-level one. It was just one of many answers DeVos botched on Tuesday night.