Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor speech: Betsy DeVos, nominee for Education Secretary

Posted on January 24, 2017

Democratic senators are searching for a valid reason to oppose the president's nomination of Betsy DeVos to be United States Education Secretary because they really don't want Americans to know what their real reason is. 

Here's the real reason: Betsy DeVos has spent the last 30 years, actually, more than 30 years being dedicated to helping low-income children in America have more of the same choices of schools that wealthy Americans already have. Specifically, specifically, the Democrats object to the fact that Betsy DeVos supports the idea of tax dollars following low-income children to the school that their parents may choose, an accredited school, public, private or religious. 

Mr. President, this is not a new or subversive idea. Let's go back to 1944, the G.I. Bill for veterans. The United States Congress enacted probably the most successful piece of social legislation ever enacted when it passed the G.I. Bill for Veterans. 

As a result, veterans came home from World War II and federal tax dollars followed them to the accredited college or university of their choice. They could go to Notre Dame, they could go to the University of Arizona, they could go to Nashville Auto Diesel College, University of Tennessee, it didn't matter. It was their choice. That's when Americans' experience with education vouchers began. 

Now, I've always wondered, why would an idea that helped to create the greatest generation, which is what we call the World War II generation, that helped create the best colleges and universities in the world, why would that be such a dangerous idea to use for our schools? 

The idea of education vouchers following students to the college of their choice has been continued in higher education. Pell grants, we spend about $30 billion in Pell grants every year. Up to $6,000 to follow lower income students to the community college or college of their choice. Those are education vouchers. We have about $100 billion of new student loans every year. How do we spend that money? We allow that money to follow the college students to the college of their choice. Those are education vouchers. 

So starting with the G.I. Bill for Veterans, all the way through Pell grants, all the way through student loans, we all endorse those ideas, saying it creates great opportunity for children. It has been so successful, I haven't heard any senator in this body stand up and say well, let's cancel the Pell grants because it's tax money following students to a college. Let's cancel $100 billion in student loans this year because it means tax dollars following someone to Harvard or to Notre Dame or to Yeshiva. No one is going to say that. 

Then why do they get so exercised about that when it has to do with our schools? 

In addition to that, Mrs. DeVos has testified before our committee that she does not favor, as much as she supports the idea of giving parents choices of schools, she does not favor Washington, D.C., telling Arizona or Tennessee or any other state that they must do that. Even though her critics, those who are opposing her now, delight in the idea of a National School Board and in imposing their pet ideas on states such as the Common Core academic standards. 

Fortunately, we agreed in December of 2015 to prohibit that. 

But here we have a lady who has spent her time helping low-income children have more choices of schools, and it was said, I respect your right to make that decision for yourself. I don't believe Washington should tell you to do that, and, yes, they are really upset with her. 

So who's in the mainstream, I would ask? The G.I. Bill for Veterans, Pell grants, $30 million worth, $100 billion of student loans this year, President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, the 25 states that have state choice programs, Congress with its passage of the Washington, D.C., voucher program, which has a thousand students standing in line, hoping to get a chance to go to a better school; 45 United States senators who voted on this floor in 2015 for the Scholarship for Kids legislation that I propose that would allow states to take $24 billion in federal dollars, turn them into $2,100 scholarships and let them follow the children, the low-income children to the school that the state believes they should go to. Or Betsy DeVos. We're all -- that's all on one side, or her critics. I think Betsy DeVos is in the mainstream. 

The second reason the Democrats on the committee are opposing Betsy DeVos is because she supports charter schools. 

Now, Mr. President, I know a little bit about charter schools. My last month as U.S. Education Secretary in January 1993, I wrote a letter to every school superintendent in America and said why don't you try this new idea that the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party has invented called charter schools. There were only 12 charter schools then. 

The first President Bush, with my help, had been working for two years to create what we called New American Schools, Start From Scratch Schools. The idea of giving teachers more freedom, parents more choices. That seemed to us like a good idea in a country that values opportunity and competition. 

Well, not only did we think so, over the last 30 years or so, a lot of people have thought so. Today there are 6,800 public charter schools in America. These are public schools. These are schools that have fewer union rules and fewer government rules so that teachers have more freedom to teach and parents have more freedom to choose the school that's appropriate for their child. 

Boy, that's really a subversive idea, isn't it? No, it's not subversive because the last six presidents of the United States have supported charter schools. Not just President Bush, but the last four presidents of the United States, the Presidents Bush and President Obama, and President Clinton and now President Trump, that's five. The last six U.S. Secretaries of Education have supported charter schools, including both of President Obama's Education Secretaries, Arne Duncan and John King. John King was founder of a charter school system in Massachusetts. 43 states have authorized charter schools. That's where the 6800 charter schools are. 2.9 million children go to those charter schools. That's more than 6% of all the children in public schools in America. 

So, Mr. President, I would ask the question again, who's in the mainstream? The last five presidents, the last six education secretaries, 43 states, the United States Senate, Betsy DeVos or her critics, or her critics? 

Now, the third reason her critics don't like her is because she is wealthy. No question about that. All of her information is public for everybody to see. She has agreed to divest herself of 102 investments that the Office of Government Ethics has identified as possibly causing a conflict of interest, so when those are gone, she has no conflict of interest, and her investments are public. 

But they don't like the fact that she has money. Would they have been happier if she had spent the last 30 years trying to deny low-income children an opportunity to go to a better school? No. She spent her money and her time trying to help children from low-income families go to a better school. 

Her opponents are really grasping for straws, and I'm very disappointed in them. 

We didn't have time to question her, they say, at our committee hearing. Well, let's go over the facts. Number one, she visited everyone in their offices individually, so they had a chance to ask her questions then. Then she appeared at a hearing for about three and a half hours, or nearly 90 minutes more for questions than either of President Obama's Education Secretaries. 

And now we have follow-up questions coming from the Democratic Senators, and let me tell you what they're doing. They have asked her 1,397 follow-up questions after the hearing. Remember, this is a hearing when she spent more time than either of President Obama's secretaries answering questions, after she had been to their office for questions, and by comparison, Republicans asked President Obama's first secretary 53 follow-up questions. And his second secretary 56 follow-up questions. The Democrats have asked 1,397 follow-up questions. 

I think what they're doing says more about them than it does about her. 

In other words, they have asked 25 times as many follow-up questions of Mrs. DeVos as Republicans asked of either of president Obama's education secretaries. 

Finally, they are throwing around conflict of interest accusations. But as I just mentioned -- and let me mention it again -- Mrs. DeVos last week signed an agreement with the independent Office of Government Ethics. The job of that office is to review the financial holdings of any cabinet nominee and identify any conflicts of interest. 

They identified 102, because the DeVos’ have a lot of money. Mrs. Devos agreed to sell all 102 of those assets. So according to the letter of agreement between the Office of Government Ethics and the independent ethics officer in the education department, who's already in the department, Mrs. Devos is not, after she divests herself of those items, which she has 90 days to do, she has no conflict of interest. 

She has also filled out the same financial disclosure forms that are fundamentally like the ones we United States senators fill out. People know where we get our money, they know what we own, they know what we owe. We know that about her. We also know the independent Office of Government Ethics has said she will have no conflicts and that she has agreed to that. 

We also know that she supports giving low-income children more choices of schools, which most Americans support. 73% of the American people told a Luntz public opinion survey that they supported more choices of schools. 

And then tax returns. Some have mentioned tax returns. Well, federal law doesn't require cabinet nominees to produce tax returns. Our education committee does not require nominees to produce tax returns. The United States senators aren't required to produce tax returns. And why? Because we fill out extensive financial disclosure forms so that the public knows what we own, what we owe, and they can make an evaluation about that. 

They also know whether we have a conflict of interest in the case of the cabinet members because the independent Office of Government Ethics decides that and they know we paid our taxes because we have to declare that under oath and there's F.B.I. investigation on top of that, which Ms. DeVos, like every other cabinet nominee has gone through. 

Mr. President, one year ago, the office of Education Secretary was vacant. I talked to President Obama about it and I said, I don't think it's appropriate for that office to be vacant. We need the institutional responsibility of having a confirmed United States Education Secretary responsive to the Senate. And I said, Mr. President, if you appoint someone -- I knew very well he intended to appoint nominate John King, with whom I greatly disagree on the scope of federal education policy, I said I will make sure he has a prompt hearing in our committee and I will make sure he is confirmed on the floor of the senate. President Obama appointed John King, he had a prompt hearing, and he was confirmed within three weeks. 

As I said, we asked him 56 questions, Republicans did, compared with the nearly 1400 questions that Democrats are asking Mrs. DeVos. I ask the American people, compare this for a minute. Look at the reasons they really don't want to confirm Betsy DeVos. 

Number one, she spent 30 years to help low-income children attend a better school. Number two, she supports public charter schools. Number three, she spent her money helping low-income children have a better school instead of denying them a better school. And number four beings she has disclosed everything there is to disclose and divested herself of every conflict that the Office of Government of Ethics has says there is. 

In addition, I rescheduled the mark-up this week until next Tuesday so members of the committee would have a chance to review all of this information. 

Next Tuesday, we will vote on whether to approve Betsy DeVos' nomination to the Office of United States Education Secretary and will send that to the floor of the full Senate. I'm confident we will do that. I'm confident the Senate will approve her, even though they may disagree with her, Democrats should give the new president a chance to have his own Education Secretary just as we did -- just as we Republicans did for President Obama. 

Few Americans have done as much as Betsy DeVos has to help low-income children have a choice of a better school. The Democrats' opposition to her says more about them than it does about her. 

Mr. President, I ask consent to include in the record a letter, which I have written to my distinguished ranking member, Senator Murray, declining to have a second hearing on Mrs. DeVos. I won't read the letter, but I will point out, again, that I see no reason why I should treat a Republican president's nominee so differently than a Democratic president's nominee was treated. 

She visited every office of the Democratic senators. She testified for up to 90 minutes longer than president Obama's secretaries. She’s answering nearly 1400 follow-up questions when each of those secretaries under President Obama answered 53 and 56. And the reasons for opposing her are reasons that are not valid. How can you turn down a woman for United States Secretary when she spent 30 years of her life 
trying to help low-income children find a better school? 

So we've had our hearing, we'll answer the questions, next Tuesday we'll have a vote. She'll be sent to the Senate and hopefully the Senate will confirm her and I look forward to working with her as United States Education Secretary. I thank the president and yield the floor.