January 17, 2017

Senator Al Franken came to today's hearing on Betsy DeVos' confirmation as Education Secretary armed with facts and figures and basic knowledge of education policy.

Sadly, Mrs. DeVos did not, as Franken soon exposed.

At one point, her answers showed she did not understand the difference between proficiency and growth when evaluating student's performance on standardized tests.

Growth is the measure of how much a student learns year-to-year compared to his or her peers. Proficiency is the attainment of specific objective benchmarks, usually determined via standardized testing. There's a huge difference between the two, and the debate is one that heavily influences public education policy.

Franken let DeVos know he wasn't impressed, chiding, "It surprises me that you don't know this issue."

(Committee chairman Lamar Alexander limited the hearing to one round of questions per Senator, 5 minutes each, claiming that it was precedent from past hearings. Despite Democratic senators' protestations, he held to that standard. )

Franken also tried to nail DeVos down on conversion therapy, asking if she supported it for LGBT students.

"I have never believed in that," DeVos replied. "I fully embrace equality and believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students should be able to attend schools and be free of discrimination."

Unfortunately, this doesn't square with her family's gifts to organizations like Focus on the Family and other anti-LGBT organizations who actively advocate for conversion therapy.

When DeVos was confronted by New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan on the Prince Foundation's donations to Focus on the Family, DeVos denied having any position on the board of that foundation and said her mother makes her own grants to other organizations without any input from her.

When Hassan followed up on that with a 990 showing DeVos listed as Vice President of the Prince Foundation, DeVos called it a "clerical error." The problem with that answer is that she has been listed as VP of that foundation for 14 straight years. Whether, as vice president, she had any say over grants made by the foundation isn't even at issue. Her flat denial of a fact easily proven is far more telling.

There were several excellent questions by Democratic Senators. Bernie Sanders asked her outright whether her family's $200 million in donations to Republican candidates had any influence on her appearing before them in the hearing. Elizabeth Warren peppered her with rapid-fire questions on student loans, getting her to admit she has no experience with them, nor does anyone in her family.

At one point in the hearing, DeVos demurred on answering a simple question about whether she would protect disabled students' rights under voucher programs in certain states.

In the end, the senators only touched the tip of the iceberg with regard to DeVos' lack of understanding and experience. Being limited as to the time they had for questions was intended to meet perfunctory and superficial requirements for a public hearing to protect her from serious and intense questions, which are warranted for someone who will be in charge of all public education for the country.

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