Democrats stand ready to grill DeVos

Betsy DeVos at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Betsy DeVos could have a tough year ahead.

President Trump’s education secretary, who also is a Michigan billionaire, has been a prime target of Democrats and liberal groups since she was nominated for the post in late 2016.

U.S. Capitol | Susan J. Demas

DeVos has been under fire for her high-profile policy moves on issues like campus sexual assault, civil rights and student debt, while her critics have complained that a Republican-led Congress has been lax in conducting oversight.

Now, Democrats control the U.S. House and they have the committee gavels.

DeVos is likely to be among many Trump cabinet officials facing intense scrutiny now that Democrats are setting the agendas and armed with subpoena power. Her year is already off to a rough start, as she is in a wheelchair following a bicycle accident.

“It’s probably going to be a rough year for Betsy DeVos from an oversight perspective,” said Scott Sargrad, managing director of K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress and a former Education Department official during the President Barack Obama administration.

“She’s an extremely unpopular cabinet member” among the public and House Democrats, Sargrad added. And some of her policy moves “lend themselves to real scrutiny.”

Betsy DeVos | Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, DeVos has consistently landed toward the bottom in popularity polls of Trump’s cabinet. She’s a former Michigan Republican Party chair and the matriarch of the powerful West Michigan clan that donates heavily to Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.). In 2006, her husband, Dick DeVos, unsuccessfully ran for Michigan governor as a Republican.

Betsy DeVos, a vocal school choice advocate and philanthropist, also has done more to shape education policy in Michigan than perhaps anyone else in the last decades.

A 2017 survey by Politico and Morning Consult ranked DeVos the least popular cabinet member, with a 28 percent favorable rating and 40 percent unfavorable rating. Another HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted that year showed DeVos being tied with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the least popular cabinet official.

Gretchen Whitmer | Facebook

DeVos was a frequent Democratic target in Michigan races last year at both the state and federal level. Now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wore a shirt on the campaign trail: “Dear America, Sorry about Betsy DeVos. Sincerely, Michigan.”

GOP Secretary of State nominee Mary Treder Lang was heavily criticized for her DeVos ties in her race against now-Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The Michigan Democratic Party even put out a website, www.MaryTrederDeVos.com

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who’s running for president, has called DeVos “the worst Secretary of Education this country has ever seen — by a large margin.”

Conservative backing

DeVos still has plenty of support in conservative circles and among school choice advocates, however.

Protest against Betsy DeVos | Wikimedia Commons

Tommy Schultz is spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group previously chaired by DeVos.

“Despite an avalanche of negative press, Secretary DeVos has remained grounded and focused on her agenda,” Schultz said.

He pointed to her efforts to “roll back some of the federal overreach” of the Obama administration and to allow families “the freedom to choose the best educational environment for their child.”

Jeb Bush

As for the opposition to DeVos, Schultz said much of it has come from teachers’ unions and an “education establishment built to resist change.” He added, “The Secretary advocates rethinking education, so when you are advocating for a change to the status quo, those invested in the status quo work very hard to resist.”

Republican former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed for DeVos to get the job under Trump, the education news website Chalkbeat reported. Bush called himself “a big Betsy DeVos fan” in 2017, and said, “I think she’s been the best advocate for school choice of moving to a parent-centered system of any secretary ever.”

A spokeswoman for the Education Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Dems’ questions

Newly empowered Democrats in the House have big plans for DeVos, whose department falls under the jurisdiction of committees including Education and Labor, Oversight and Government Reform, and Appropriations.

Bobby Scott

When it comes to oversight, “We’d actually like to conduct it,” said a Democratic aide to the Education and Labor Committee. “We haven’t had rigorous oversight.”

That committee’s chair, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and his colleagues have been frustrated by the U.S. Education Department’s lack of responsiveness to Democrats’ inquiries.

“We frequently send them letters and it’s been their policy not to respond to us,” the committee aide said.

They’ll now be able to subpoena documents and testimony.

For now, Scott isn’t planning to “drag the secretary” to Capitol Hill every week for hearings, that person added. “We want to have an open dialogue with the administration.”

Asked whether frequent DeVos appearances could be requested if the administration doesn’t cooperate, the aide said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Education Department, has been an outspoken critic of DeVos.

DeLauro said in a statement that she intends to “hold Secretary DeVos accountable for her agency’s failure to uphold federal protections for our students — especially her actions that have hurt student borrowers and survivors of sexual assault, protected predatory for-profit schools, and moved towards privatizing public education.”

Fighting Obama-era policies

Some of DeVos’ most controversial moves have included her efforts to roll back Obama administration education policies.

Sign posted on the MSU campus, Jan. 17, 2018 | Michael Gerstein

She revoked Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault, proposing a new regulation that met fierce criticism from victims’ rights advocates. She also repealed the previous administration’s guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.

The education secretary also moved to ax an Obama-era rule that would have offered debt forgiveness to students who can show they were defrauded by for-profit colleges.

DeVos irked congressional Democrats last year when reports surfaced that she was examining whether to allow states to use an academic support fund to outfit schools with guns.

Betsy DeVos at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Scott, who was the top Democrat on the House education panel last year, said then in a statement, “The administration is openly violating the spirit of the law as well as common sense about gun safety. If it is unwilling to abandon this proposal, Congress must step in to protect students and educators from the consequences.”

Increased scrutiny of cabinet officials is par for the course when the political party opposing the White House gains control of a chamber of Congress.

But the new leadership in Congress could mean particularly big changes for DeVos, who has made relatively few Capitol Hill appearances since she took the helm of the department.

Protest against Betsy DeVos | Wikimedia Commons

House Democrats complained, for example, that she didn’t testify before the education committee until last May — when she had already been on the job for 16 months.

DeVos’ previous appearances before Congress have emboldened her critics. During her confirmation hearing in 2017, her comments about the need for guns in schools to “protect from potential grizzlies” went viral, fueling a public outcry over her nomination.

Since then, Sargrad of the Center for American Progress said DeVos has gotten more polished.

“I think she has gotten better at the hearing process,” he said. “When you do them more, I think you get better at them.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Robin Bravender
Michigan native Robin Bravender is the DC Bureau Chief for the Newsroom, a consortium of 10 nonprofit news publications, including the Michigan Advance. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.

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