By Greg Toppo, USA Today, January 30, 2017
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., left, poses with Asher Kockler and his sign
for a family member during a rally in Portland, Ore., Friday,
Jan. 27, 2017. Several hundred supporters gathered with Oregon
congressional leaders in protest against Education Secretary
nominee Betsy DeVos. (Photo by Don Ryan/AP)
President Trump’s nominee for education secretary will likely get a thumbs-up on Tuesday from a Senate committee, advancing her nomination to the Senate floor. But Michigan billionaire and philanthropist Betsy DeVos faces fierce opposition from education and civil rights groups, many of whom have stood up to oppose her in just the past few days.
DeVos, a well-known advocate of school choice, faces a vote on Tuesday in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. If it takes place as scheduled, lawmakers on both sides expect her nomination to be approved by a party-line vote. Republicans narrowly control the committee, as well as the Senate.
But groups that advocate for students with disabilities, among others, oppose her confirmation, saying in a few cases that they doubt DeVos even understands the details of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the 1975 law that guarantees a “free appropriate public education” to disabled students.
Under intense questioning from Democrats during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, DeVos suggested that states should be able to decide whether schools must follow the law. She later said she may have been confused about IDEA’s requirements.
The hearing prompted Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, to write that he was “was deeply dismayed by her performance” in the hearing. “It was, in a word, disqualifying,” he wrote in The Washington Post last week.
DeVos last week sought to clarify her position. In a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), she said she is “committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.”
But disability-rights advocates had already raised an alarm. In a letter sent to lawmakers the same day, Denise Marshall, executive director of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., a special education advocacy group, said DeVos “manifested an appalling lack of knowledge of educational concepts, the difference between the federal and state statutes that govern education, and basic facts about public education. Specifically, her lack of knowledge of the IDEA is disturbing and offensive to us.”
Marshall said DeVos’ stance, whether due to confusion or ideological belief, “is unacceptable and clearly indicates that Ms. DeVos is unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education.”
Marshall also challenged DeVos’ proposal to give vouchers to disabled students, saying DeVos has “advocated for vouchers writ large as if they solve every family’s dilemma,” without committing to protect students against discrimination in private schools or privately managed public charter schools.
Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan activist who has filed hundreds of federal complaints against schools, school districts, state education departments and other public agencies to make their websites accessible to people with vision and hearing disabilities, said DeVos’ proposal to offer vouchers won’t help most low-income families in places like Detroit and Flint, Mich. “As an advocate, I don't share one inch of common ground with Betsy DeVos,” she said.
On Monday, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urged lawmakers to reject DeVos. “She’s just not qualified to do that job,” said Liz King, the group’s director of education policy, who called DeVos’ appointment “abnormal from a bipartisan perspective.”
The group joined others opposing the nomination, including about 2,700 students and alumni of DeVos’ alma mater, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and more than 345,000 people who have signed a Change.org petition.
Casey Rogers, the Lakewood, Colo., mother of two who started the petition, said that after watching DeVos’ Jan. 17 hearing, “I knew that if she were to be confirmed, the educational system under her leadership would most likely not be held accountable for educating my child with special needs appropriately. The results of such a change would likely be profoundly negative for my daughter, as well as for other children with special needs. I just couldn't sit back and simply watch this happen.”
While DeVos’ confirmation is expected, her position on IDEA “rankles enough Republicans” that they might abstain or vote against her nomination, said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. Combined with other factors, including DeVos’ holdings in education-related companies, “There may be Republicans who aren’t expressing concerns who have some,” he said.
So far, few if any Republicans have come out against her. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush earlier this month wrote in USA TODAY that DeVos "will cut federal red tape and be a passionate advocate for state and local control of schools."
Bush, a former GOP presidential contender added, "In the two decades that I have been actively involved in education reform, I have worked side-by-side with Betsy to promote school choice and put the interests of students first. I know her commitment to children, especially at-risk kids, is genuine and deep."
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary who chairs the HELP Committee, has steadfastly supported DeVos, writing in a Washington Post op-ed last week that Democrats “desperately are searching for a valid reason to oppose Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary because they don’t want Americans to know the real reason for their opposition.”
DeVos, he wrote, has spent “more than three decades helping children from low-income families choose a better school,” a policy that Democrats resent, even as wealthy families “choose their children’s schools every day.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee's ranking member, on Monday asked that Tuesday's vote be postponed, saying she still had questions about DeVos' "tangled finances, potential conflicts of interest, and plans to privatize and defund public education."
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo