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Republicans Rally Behind Betsy DeVos at School Choice Event, Wave Away Concerns

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Washington

Republican lawmakers rallied to the defense of Betsy DeVos, President Trump's pick to be education secretary, at a Tuesday event here to promote school choice. They dismissed any concern about fellow GOP lawmakers dropping their support for DeVos, and downplayed the idea that DeVos' confirmation process has hurt her ability to run the U.S. Department of Education.

Speaking at the U.S. Capitol at a gathering hosted by National School Choice Week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee leader, praised DeVos' record on school choice, and criticized efforts to oppose her.

Afterward, he indicated to Education Week that he wasn't worried that attacks on DeVos' remarks about special education and guns in schools would linger at the department, saying, "The way the Democratic senators have been says more about them than it does about her." 

At the event, as well as in a speech on the Senate floor and a blog post published at Medium on Tuesday, Alexander also sharply criticized Democrats' efforts to hamper DeVos' nomination. He said Democrats were having "a fit" over DeVos, despite her work to expand choice for disadvantaged children. He called opposition to DeVos' work to support vouchers and other choice programs a "pretty awful reason" to justify attempts at holding up her nomination.

And Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a member of the Senate education committee who introduced DeVos at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, was more blunt. When asked if he was worried about DeVos losing the one-vote margin she needs to have her nomination favorably advanced out of the committee, he said "No."

"I thought her performance was pretty strong, actually," Scott said. "The fact of the matter is that no one has a perfect performance. No one expects a perfect performance. But she had a solid performance, and that should be good enough." (Scott, like many Republican lawmakers, has received campaign contributions from DeVos and her family.)

There's been no indication publicly that any GOP senator is leaning toward opposing DeVos. 

A spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who was endorsed by the National Education Association in her last race, did not indicate which way the senator was leaning, saying only on Monday that regarding DeVos and other cabinet nominees, the senator "will continue to closely examine the merits of each candidate before arriving at a final decision." At the Jan. 17 hearing, Murkowski perhaps asked the toughest questions of any GOP senator, asking her about her support for traditional public schools in rural states like her own where diverse school options mostly are not available.

A spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, did not respond to requests for comment about her views on DeVos. Collins is a relatively moderate Republican who also represents a state where vouchers and private school options are often difficult logistically.

Republicans have 12 members on the committee, compared to 11 Democrats. (Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., identifies as an independent but caucuses with Democrats.) 

Fierce But Futile Opposition?

During her hearing, DeVos appeared initially unfamiliar with the Individual With Disabilities Education Act, and also seemed unclear about the difference between growth and proficiency on exams in an exchange with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's top Democrat, has led a charge against DeVos that has included questions about her financial conflicts of interests, her support (or lack thereof) of continued funding support for traditional public schools, and what Democrats have called Alexander's refusal to let appropriate questions be asked in the DeVos hearing.

On Monday, Alexander rejected a request from Murray to hold a second day of confirmation hearings for DeVos.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a school choice supporter, also expressed confidence about DeVos' nomination at Tuesday's choice event.

"We are about to have a secretary of education who not only believes in school choice, but has been fighting for school choice for much of her adult life," Ryan told the audience. (The House does not vote on cabinet nominations.)

Despite the outcry from some groups about DeVos, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., who helped run the school choice event, said he was "very optimistic" that DeVos would be confirmed. Messer has also received campaign money from DeVos.

"Betsy DeVos is an outsider. She's not somebody who's spent every day of the last 20 years running a school system or something like that," Messer said, when asked about DeVos' comments on special education and other issues. "So it's not surprising she wasn't an expert on every single issue that one might raise in a hearing setting. But she knows education."

The opposition to DeVos from Democratic lawmakers and some outside education groups, including from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, has been quite intense. But there's no public evidence yet that any Republican on the committee will buck Trump and go against DeVos. If all Republicans on the committee vote for DeVos, there's nothing to stop DeVos' nomination from being sent to the full Senate for a vote. The GOP has a majority there as well.

Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman, speaks to students at a National School Choice Week event at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 24.


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