Alexander: Senate Education Committee Sends Nomination of Betsy DeVos to Senate Floor

Posted on January 31, 2017

“Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side” 

Click here for video of Alexander’s opening remarks. 

WASHINGTON, January 31 — The Senate’s education committee today favorably reported out the nomination of Betsy DeVos to become the next United States Secretary of Education. DeVos’s nomination is now ready for consideration by the full Senate.

“Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side. On charter schools and school choice, she is in the mainstream of those trying to help children succeed and her critics are outside of it,” said Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “I am proud that our education committee has favorably reported out her nomination, and I urge my colleagues to support her confirmation when it comes to a vote on the Senate floor.”

The full text of Senator Alexander’s remarks from this morning’s markup is below:

The committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will now come to order in its executive session. We meet today for the purpose of considering the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as United States Secretary of Education. We will also consider one amendment that has been filed, that was by Senator Murray, on tax returns. And after that we will have a vote to reaffirm our committee rules and to approve subcommittees. 

I'm going to take a few minutes to give opening remarks, and then Senator Murray will have an opportunity to do the same. I know there are others who wish to speak and I want to ensure that they all can do so. So we will make sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak, up to about five minutes. 

For planning purposes, for the senators planning, we will vote on all four measures at about 11:30. We have nine members on the Finance Committee and when they are finished with their voting, they will come in and we will vote at 11:30 or a little after. We will not vote before 11:30 for senators who are making their plans. 

If not, all the members of our committee has had a chance to speak before a vote at 11:30, I'll be glad to stay after the vote until everyone has had an opportunity to say, to have their say. 

Now, these are my comments. 

This is a committee of considerable differences of opinion. But it's also a committee that has on big occasions been able to resolve those differences of opinion, usually in a cordial way. I'm sorry to say that we are not able to do that this time. We have differences of opinion still remaining on process, and we have differences of opinion still remaining on the nominee. We have a difference of opinion on Senator Murray's amendment. 

I have the greatest respect for Senator Murray, and for each member of this committee. I’ve prized the fact we've been able to resolve those differences and do it in a civil way in the past, and I hope we can get back to that way of working soon. 

But I think I have to face the facts and say we disagree about process. We disagree about the nominee. And we are at the point where we need to express those disagreements by a vote. 

Let me start with the process. My goal from the beginning was a fair and thorough process to comply with the rules of the committee and try to treat President Trump's nominee for education secretary about the same way we treated at President Obama’s two nominees for education secretary. In other words, to apply the golden rule. 

In my opinion, Mrs. DeVos has complied with our committee rules. She's met with each of us in our offices. She is testified in our confirmation hearing. She has answered our follow-up questions. Based on my research, she is the most question education secretary in the history of the Senate. Number two is probably me, based on what happened in 1991. 

She's provided information about what she owns, about to whom she owes it, about whether she has paid her taxes, about who her campaign contributions are to, and she's reached an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics which is constituted by law to work with each cabinet nominee and determine if there any conflict of interest. And if the office, the independent office judges that there is, then the nominee has to find a way to deal with it. Mrs. DeVos has reached an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics, and as a result of that, the office says that she has no conflicts of interest.

Let me be specific about this process since so much attention has been paid both in the committee and outside about the process. The president announced his intention to nominate Mrs. DeVos as Education Secretary on November 23. On November 30, Mrs. DeVos sent a letter to every member of our committee saying she would be happy to meet with them during December. Many Republican members met with her. No Democratic member took advantage of that opportunity. On December 12, Mrs. DeVos submitted her required forms to the Office of Government Ethics. 

On January 4, a full week before her hearing was originally scheduled, Mrs. DeVos submitted to our committee the paperwork that we require. Our committee requires it five days before holding a hearing on the nominee. A couple of days later the committee was informed on January 6 that her FBI background check was complete. Then on January 9, at the request of the Senate leadership, Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer, and to accommodate their schedule, I moved Mrs. DeVos' hearing a week later, delayed it to January 17. I then scheduled it that day at 5 P.M., an unusual hour to accommodate Democratic requests, that would accommodate the travel schedules of members who have Martin Luther King holiday events the day before. 

Then on January 17, we had our committee hearing. Mrs. DeVos testified for 90 minutes longer than President Obama’s first Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Nearly 90 minutes longer than John King testified, President Obama’s second Education Secretary. 

Then on January 19, senators submitted about 1,400 written follow-up questions to Mrs. DeVos. Before that, to take the two Obama education secretaries, Republicans submitted 53 follow-up questions for Secretary Duncan, and 56 follow-up questions for Secretary King. So Democrats submitted 25 times more follow-up questions for Mrs. DeVos than Republicans had done for President Obama has nominees. And just to complete the things that have happened, on January 19, Mrs. DeVos and Office of Government Ethics reached an agreement. 

The letter from that office, which I have here and will place in the record says the following: “We have reviewed the information presented, and they include an agreement between Mrs. DeVos and the Office of Government Ethics.” And then the language of the director of the Office of Government of Ethics says “based thereon we believe that this nominee is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations governing conflicts of interest.”

There is no committee rule regarding that Office of Government Ethics report. The precedent is to have it in place before we are voting on it, which we will today, we received it all the more than a week ago. 

Yesterday morning, January 30, senators received answers from Mrs. DeVos and she provided supplemental information up until last night, and today we're holding a vote on her nomination. A suggestion has been made that we should hear more from her, that we should ask additional questions. I have declined to honor that request because I believe she is already the most questioned Education Secretary in our history. 

She’s testified for 90 minutes longer than either of President Obama’s education secretaries. The Democrats have asked her 25 times more follow-up questions than Republicans asked of those two secretaries. And on top of that, last Thursday, one Democratic member of the committee said that Democrats had had a retreat and decided that none of them would vote for Ms. DeVos, even before she had a chance to answer the 1,400 follow-up questions. So one wonders what the purpose of more questions would be. 

The suggestion has been made that we need more information on conflicts of interest, but the purpose of the independent Office of Government Ethics report is to make sure she has no conflicts, and the office said she will not. And that she will divest herself of 102 things that she owns in order to cure any possible conflict of interest. That's what the agreement says. 

We've all seen that information. We’ve seen that letter. We have had it for a week. We might disagree with it. It might affect our vote, but it's there. 

I don't think it's fair to treat Mrs. DeVos so differently than we did President Obama's education nominees and I don't see any reasonable purpose for further questions when she already answered 25 times more questions than President Obama's education secretaries were asked in follow-up. And those who are asking the questions have already announced that they are voting ‘no’ even before she could answer the last round of questions that they asked. 

Now on the nominee herself. The objection is she supports charter schools. That should be no surprise--the last six education secretaries, the last five presidents, the Congress, 43 states have all supported charter schools. 

The objection is that she supports school choice. That should be no surprise -- that a Republican president appoints an Education Secretary who supports school choice. Both Presidents Bush did. Congress approved the D.C. Voucher program. Congress approved the G.I. Bill for Veterans and the Pell grants and the student loans, all of which are vouchers. 45 senators voted for Senator’s Scott's legislation and my legislation which would give states the opportunity to give low income children more choices of schools that their parents thought best for them. 

We understand and respect the fact that our differences of opinion on this, but it should be no surprise that she supports giving low-income children more opportunity of schools. The question isn't whether she supports public schools. She said she did, like most Americans. Her mother was a public school teacher. She was a mentor in public schools. She spent 30 years helping low-income children have options of better schools. 

I recruited David Kearns, the head of Xerox to be Deputy Secretary when I was education secretary. He used to tell me it was difficult to reform public education from within. She is from outside public education in that sense, just as David Kearns was and does anyone really expect President Trump to appoint someone from the education establishment to be Education Secretary? 

There's a concern she has a lot of money. She's spent a lot of it helping low-income children have better choices of schools. 

And the Office of Government Ethics, an independent office, whose head was appointed by President Obama, agrees she has no conflicts of interest if she divests herself of these items as she is agreed to do.

She has testified she will implement the law fixing No Child Left Behind the way we wrote it. We should welcome that. The school boards are in town, she trusts them, not a national school board. That means no orders from Washington to adopt Common Core. That means no orders from Washington to adopt school choice. 

She said to Senator Collins when she testified “I absolutely support the fact it is a state role and state decision what kind of offering there might be with regards to choices and education. And as we discussed in your office, Maine has a unique situation with students attending school on islands and in rural areas.  And to suggest that the right answer for Maine is the same as the right answer for Indiana or any state is just not right and I would not support a federal mandate or federal role in dictating those.”

One year ago, we did not have an Education Secretary because Secretary Duncan had resigned. I urged President Obama to appoint an Education Secretary for institutional reasons. I thought it was not good for a President of the United States not to have a secretary accountable to the Senate. I knew he would appoint John King. I knew that I disagreed with John King, but I said to the president that if you would appoint him that I would make sure he had a prompt hearing and that we would confirm him promptly because I thought the president was entitled to his cabinet member. 

I had as big a difference with John King, and continue to, although I respect him, I had a nice talk with him on but he left office, I had as big a difference with him on the role of the federal government in schools as any members of this committee might have with Mrs. DeVos. But in fact, she agrees with what 85 senators voted for when we fixed No Child Left Behind. She wants to reverse the trend to a national school board, stop telling teachers and school boards how to run their schools. One would think the committee would be delighted with that. 

I respect my colleagues. I don't question their motives. I don't question their votes. But I believe their concerns are misplaced. So just as I made sure President Obama was able to promptly secure a nomination of his choice for education secretary, I would ask my colleagues to allow our new Republican president to have his cabinet choice, especially when she has agreed to implement the law we passed fixing No Child Left Behind, just as we wrote it and just as teachers, governors, school board members and others supported us doing.