At the Senate confirmation hearing for Donald Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, Senator Al Franken did not hold back when calling out her lack of understanding of an issue that will be fundamental to her job, if confirmed. He also challenged her family's prior support for the harmful, widely-denounced, anti-LGBT practice known as "conversion therapy."
Betsy DeVos, the billionaire school "reformer" whom President-elect Donald Trump has named to undermine public education as head of the Education Department, had her turn in front of the Senate today for her confirmation hearings.
Many of DeVos' views and much of her history make her, as with nearly all of Trump's cabinet nominees, an extremely troubling choice to be in charge of education at the federal level. And Senator Al Franken (D-MN) used his brief allotment of time to make that as clear as he could.
In fact, Franken revealed that DeVos lacks any appreciable amount of understanding on a key issue for education policy, that of growth versus proficiency.
FRANKEN: When I first got in the senate in 2009, I had a round table of principals. And one of the principals — in Minnesota — and he said, "We think of the NCLB test as autopsies." And I knew exactly what he meant. Because what he was saying is: The students take the test in late April, if they're lucky they get them back in late June. The teachers can't use the results to inform their instruction. So, I saw that in Minnesota, that in addition to the NCLB tests, a lot of schools, the majority of the schools were taking a Computer Adaptive test — a computer test where you get the results right away, and adaptive so that you can measure outside the grade level. This brings me to the issue of proficiency, which the Senator cited, versus growth. And I would like your views on the relative advantage of measuring, doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth.
DEVOS: Thank you, Senator, for that question. I think if I am understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area.
FRANKEN: Well, that's growth. That's not proficiency. So in other words, the growth they are making is not growth. The proficiency is an arbitrary standard.
DEVOS: Proficiency is if they have reached a third grade level for reading, etc.
FRANKEN: No, I'm talking about the debate between proficiency in growth, and what your thoughts are on that.
DEVOS: Well, I was just asking to clarify, then —
FRANKEN: Well, this is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. I have advocated growth, as the Chairman and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids of the top, who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kids at the bottom who, no matter what they do, they know will never get to proficiency. So I've been an advocate of growth. But it surprises me that you don't know this issue.
After making it apparent that DeVos lacks technical understanding of this key issue, Franken then turned, with discernible passion in his voice, to her views on an equally critical topic — that of her family's monetary support for so-called "conversion therapy."
FRANKEN: Your family has a long history of supporting anti-LGBT causes, including donating millions of dollars to groups that push "conversion therapy," the practice of trying to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, you and your family have given over 10 million dollars to Focus on the Family, an organization that currently states on its website that "homosexual strugglers can and do change their sexual behavior and identity." Mrs. DeVos, conversion therapy has been widely discredited and rejected for decades by every mainstream medical and mental health organization as neither medically nor ethically appropriate. It has been shown to lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide, particularly in LGBT youth. In fact, many of the leaders and founders of conversion therapy, including both religious ministries and mental health professionals, have not only publicly renounced it, but have issued formal apologies for their work and how harmful it has been to the individuals involved. Mr. Chairman, I would ask that this be included in the record.
ALEXANDER: It will be.
FRANKEN: Mrs. DeVos, do you still believe in conversion therapy?
DEVOS: Senator Franken, I've never believed in that. First of all, let me say, I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being, and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination. So let's start there. And let me just say that your characterization of contributions, I don't think accurately reflects those of my family. I would hope you wouldn't include other family members beyond my core family.
DeVos' denial of support for conversion therapy may sound good on its surface, but her answer lacks any real meaning, as it avoids touching on the specific groups who have been harmed by the practice.
And her answer to the point about her family's donations to groups like Focus on the Family seems too clever by half. As The Daily Beast notes:
DeVos’s stance on LGBT rights is not known—she has declined to comment ahead of the confirmation hearings—but there are, to put it mildly, reasons for concern.
The DeVos family has been the primary funder of some of the most anti-LGBT organizations in the country, to the tune of more than $200 million. Her father-in-law, Richard DeVos, was one of the first mega-funders of the Christian right in the 1970s, and his foundation is now a fixture at The Gathering, the Woodstock of Christian right funders, and a major funder of Focus on the Family. The DeVos Center for Religion and Society at the Heritage Foundation has promoted a quasi-theocratic worldview. And Betsy DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was a founder of the Family Research Council.
On the other hand, that’s her family—not her. The Dick and Betsy DeVos foundation itself has largely focused on school vouchers and school choice, though they have also supported the Acton Institute, a hard-right “religious liberty” organization that has taken many anti-LGBT stances.
What's more, her minimal denouncement becomes even less meaningful, when one considers that Vice President-elect Mike Pence is himself a supporter of conversion therapy.
It is sadly expected that a nominee for the Trump cabinet would lack qualifications and understanding of the job for which they have been named, and that they would hold regressive and harmful views on issues of social justice.
But it is heartening to see Democrats like Franken continue to sound the alarm about the damage nominees like DeVos could do, if given the power under a Trump-Pence White House.