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WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on Tuesday questioned President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Murphy pressed DeVos on individuals profiting from taxpayer dollars that otherwise would have gone to public schools, federal accountability regulations and whether she supports President-elect Trump’s pledge to ban gun-free zones in schools. Murphy also voiced his serious concerns that the hearing was held prior to receiving the Office of Government Ethic’s report on DeVos’ potential conflicts of interest and that the hearing was cut short after only one round of questioning from committee members.
“I commend Mrs. DeVos for her longtime commitment to improving education for kids, but her answers at tonight's hearing were beyond disturbing. I was dumbfounded to hear her support Trump’s rollback of gun-free zones in schools and fail to say anything at all about the danger of having guns in classrooms. Equally stunning was her equivocation on enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The idea that the next Secretary of Education won't enforce federal law protecting kids with disabilities, or perhaps doesn't know what the law is, is frightening to families with kids with disabilities. Unfortunately though, I didn’t have time to ask. I am deeply disappointed that Chairman Alexander, who has a well-deserved reputation for fairness, cut off the hearing when so many questions were left unanswered. We are doing our kids a disservice by not thoroughly vetting Mrs. DeVos and her potentially radical ideas for our nation's schools," said Murphy.
In 2015, Murphy successfully led efforts in the Senate to close the achievement gap and enable the most vulnerable students to succeed by ensuring that schools with low graduation rates, low-performing subgroups, or well-below average achievement are identified, made eligible for funding, and receive additional support through accountability and improvement systems set up by the states.
Full transcript of the Murphy and DeVos exchange is below:
MURPHY: I wish Senator Alexander had decided to allow us more than a meager 5 minutes of questions. Mrs. DeVos, do you have anywhere to be tonight? Would you be able to stick around and answer those questions?
DEVOS: I’m going to defer to the chairman on this.
MURPHY: I assume you probably don’t have other obligations. Let me just count myself in, I think this is a real shame. This rush job. This inability to allow the public to see this debate. The imperative to get this hearing in before we have all the information. I think it violates the best traditions of this committee, and it suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny, and I hope that we would reconsider.
Mrs. DeVos let me try to rush through these questions in the time that I have. Your family has been investors in a company called K12, it’s a for-profit online charter operator. It gets about 80% of its money from federal or state taxpayers, and it paid its CEO over a million dollars in the first year. It’s made millions and millions in profit. I could go through a long litany of examples in which people have made their fortune off of public education dollars -- a charter school principal in Orlando who got a $519,000 payout when her school was closed for poor performance. I guess my question is simple: do you support companies and individuals profiting from public education dollars that is essentially taking money away from students to pay salaries for CEOs and return for investors?
DEVOS: Senator, thank you for that question. Let me just say that when it comes to education, I think what’s important is what the outcomes are, what the achievements are. And I don’t think the delivery mechanism is the issue as much as it is our students receiving the benefit of a great education.
MURPHY: Have you met many principals in Detroit that say that they have enough? That they don’t need more?
DEVOS: I can’t really answer that question, I haven’t asked them specifically if they have enough.
MURPHY: So if we can’t agree that folks shouldn’t get rich off of schools, then maybe we can agree that they shouldn’t be getting rich off of terrible schools. You and I had the chance to talk in my office about the accountability regulations that were a big part of the underlying new federal education law. The Department of Education has issued final regulations that incorporate comments of basically everyone in the education field to make sure that to the extent public dollars are flowing to public schools, that they meet real standards. These accountability are supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the School Superintendents Association, civil rights groups, teachers unions. Can you assure this committee that you’re going to implement those accountability regulations to make sure that all schools are performing, and not throw ESSA implementation into chaos for states and districts around the country? Are you going to implement those accountability regulations?
DEVOS: Senator, let me just restate again that I think accountability is highly important, and I support accountability for all schools, which is why I supported the most recent legislation in Michigan that is now holding all schools - including traditional public schools - accountable for performance. And I will continue to support accountability, and I will continue to support the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress has intended it.
MURPHY: So let me just let me ask you again, are you going to support the implementation of the existing regulations, again supported by a wide cross-section of the educational community that require schools to come up with their own accountability standards, state and local based, that will require that all schools meet some basic performance standards? I’m asking you a specific question about this existing regulation and whether you are going to support it, or whether you’re going to use your position to undermine it or to change it.
DEVOS: Well, as would be tradition with a change of aministrations, I will look forward to reviewing that. And again, I will restate my orientation to pro-accountability and pro-responsibility to parents and taxpayers.
MURPHY: I think that’s going to raise a lot of questions for administrators and school superintendents who are now trying to implement that regulation. One final question, do you think that guns have any place in or around schools?
DEVOS: I think that’s best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question is…
MURPHY: You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?
DEVOS: Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.
MURPHY: If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?
DEVOS: I will support what the President-elect does, but Senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that I – my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.
MURPHY: I look forward to working with you, but I also look forward to you coming to Connecticut and talking about the role of guns in schools.