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Alexander: Betsy DeVos is On Our Children’s Side

Asks, “Who is in the mainstream on public charter schools? Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama; the last six U.S. Education Secretaries, the U.S. Congress, 43 states and the District of Columbia, Betsy DeVos—or her critics?”

WASHINGTON, January 17 — At today’s Senate education committee hearing on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said “Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side.  On charter schools and school choice, she is in the mainstream of those trying to help children succeed and her critics are outside of it.”

Alexander, who was Education Secretary for President George H. W. Bush, said his last act as secretary in 1993 was to ask every U.S. school district to emulate the dozen charter schools started by the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.  Since then, he said, broad, bipartisan support has increased that number to 6,800 charter schools, attended by 2.7 million children.   He asked, “Who is in the mainstream on public charter schools? The Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama; the last six U.S. Education Secretaries, the U.S.  Congress, 43 states and the District of Columbia, Betsy DeVos—or her critics?”

On school choice, Alexander said that the idea of allowing taxpayer money to follow students to educational institutions of their choice began with the GI Bill for Veterans in 1944 and has continued through federal Pell grants and student loans.  He asked, “Why is an idea that has helped to create the best colleges in the world not a good idea to help create the best schools in the world?” Pointing to increasing support for giving low-income families more choices of accredited schools, public, private  or religious,  he asked: “Who is in the mainstream?  Both Presidents Bush, the President-elect, 25 states, the U.S. Congress in the D.C. Voucher program, 45 U.S. Senators, 73 percent of Americans, Betsy DeVos, or her critics?”

Sen. Alexander said, “Would her critics be happier if she had spent her time and her money trying to deny children from low-income families the opportunity to attend schools that wealthy families can choose rather than trying to help them?”

“We are fortunate that Betsy DeVos is President-elect’s Trump nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, I am going to do my best to support her confirmation and look forward to working with her.”

Senator Alexander’s prepared remarks are below:

Today’s hearing is our first of the new Congress. This committee knows how to resolve considerable differences, which has resulted in what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said was the most important legislation last year, 21st Century Cures, and major mental health reforms; and the Christmas miracle of 2015, our bill to fix No Child Left Behind. In the last Congress, this committee passed 33 bills that were eventually signed into law by the president.

Despite our differences, we have shown courtesy to one another and to our witnesses. 

Before opening today’s hearing, I’d like to say a few words on process.

More than 25 years ago, I was sitting where you are, Mrs. DeVos, and Sen Howard Metzenbaum said, “Well, governor, I’ve heard some disturbing things about you. But I’m not going to bring them up.”

And Senator Nancy Kassebaum said, “Well, Howard, I think you just did.”  Sen. Metzenbaum held up my confirmation for 2 months.

You won’t have to go through that Mrs. DeVos, because we’re going to apply the Golden Rule: We are going to use the same procedures we did in 2001 and 2005 for both President George W. Bush’s education secretaries and that we did for both of President Obama’s nominees in 2009 and 2016. We considered these nominees and voted on them promptly.

For example, we held a hearing on Arne Duncan’s nomination on January 13 and he was confirmed a week later.

We held a hearing on John King on February 25 and voted on his nomination a couple of weeks later.      

We’ve received from Mrs. DeVos—and each senator has had available—this committee’s required forms, since Jan 4, more than a week in advance of our earlier hearing date. These are the forms that our committee rules require.  

We’ve also received the results of her FBI background check.

Mrs. DeVos provided information to the Office of Government Ethics on Dec 12 – and we will have the letter from that office on their agreement to deal with any conflicts of interest before we vote on her nomination. 

As for questions: Today, every senator will have 5 minutes of questions.  Again, we are applying the Golden Rule, senators had one round of questions, 5 minutes each, for President Obama’s Education Secretary nominees in 2009 and 2016. And in my case in 1991.  In each of those hearings, the chairman and one senator asked 5 minutes of additional questions, so we will do the same today.

Each of us will also have a chance to submit a reasonable number of questions in writing by close of business Thursday. 

We will plan to hold an executive session on the 24th to consider reporting Ms. Devos to the full senate, if her final OGE letter is received by this  Friday in order to give senators a chance to review it. 

This morning, after Sen. Murray’s opening statement, we will hear from Senator Lieberman and Senator Scott, who are introducing Mrs. DeVos.

Betsy DeVos is on our children’s side.

She has dedicated her life to helping children, especially low-income children, have the opportunity to attend a good school.

Most of the criticism of Mrs. DeVos has been focused on three things:

(1)  Her support for more public charter schools;

(2)  Her advocacy for giving lower-income parents more choices;

(3) Her use of her considerable wealth to advance effectively those two ideas

I believe Mrs. DeVos is in the mainstream of public opinion on the best way to help children succeed, and her critics are outside of it.

First, the idea of charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools that have fewer government and union rules, so teachers have more freedom to teach children and parents have more freedom to choose. 

In 1991 and 1992, working with President George H.W. Bush, we encouraged what we called “start from scratch schools” and raised $70 million in private dollars to find innovative ways to help children learn.

Then, my last act as U.S. Education Secretary under George H.W. Bush was to send a letter to every school superintendent across the country, urging them to consider replicating the early successes of charter schools in Minnesota.

The Democrats were responsible for starting about a dozen of these schools in Minnesota – they were members of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota.

And ever since then – charters have enjoyed broad support.

Albert Shanker, the late head of the American Federation of Teachers supported the idea.

In 1997, President Clinton called for creating 3,000 charter schools by 2002.

Senator Hillary Clinton supported charter schools.

George W Bush supported charter schools.

President Obama supported charter schools and his nominee Arne Duncan for Education Secretary called himself “a strong supporter of charter schools.” He said, “We have to have the courage to challenge the status quo.”

Before he was Education Secretary, John King founded a charter school and ran a system of charter schools.

Congress passed legislation supportive of charters in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2015—it is always bipartisan and usually in large numbers.  When we fixed No Child Left Behind, we gave charters more, not less support.

43 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools.

Over the last 30 years, the number of charter schools has grown from 12 to 6,800.  Today, 6 percent of public school students attend charters.

So, who is in the mainstream on public charter schools? Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama; the last six U.S. Education Secretaries, the U.S.  Congress, 43 states and the District of Columbia, Betsy DeVos—or her critics?

It’s pretty obvious that she is in mainstream. She is on the side of our children.

Now let’s go to the second criticism: giving low-income parents more choices of schools that wealthy Americans have.  

More specifically, her critics’ objection to using public money to follow poor children to an accredited school of their parents’ choice,  public, private or religious

Critics are arguing against the most successful social policy ever produced: the GI Bill which allowed money to follow veterans to the college of their choice.

This legislation was a fundamental part of creating what has been called the Greatest Generation, and since then, federal student aid and student loans in higher education have followed the student to the school of their choice.

Each year that’s $29 billion in new Pell grants, and nearly $100 billion in new student loans--all vouchers.

Why is such a great idea for college students such a bad idea for K-12 students?

Many of us believe competition produces the best colleges. 

Today all 50 states and Washington DC offer to some students alternatives to the school they would normally be assigned based on their residence.

About 15 percent attend a school other than their school of residence through open-enrollment programs. 

44 states allow parents to send their children to public schools outside their districts and 34 states allow parents  to choose within their district.

In addition to that, nearly 400,000 children are served by 50 private school choice programs across 25 states, DC, and Douglas County, Colorado.

Congress passed bipartisan legislation creating the DC school voucher program in 2003, to date helping 6,100 children, with more than 1,000  kids on the list for those opportunities this year.

There’s been growing support in Congress since the GI Bill for Kids in 1992. My Scholarship for Kids proposal and Senator Scott’s proposal during the debate on ESSA each received 45 votes. 

According to a 2013 Luntz Global Public Opinion Survey – 73 percent of Americans support school choice and 64 percent of parents said that, “if given the financial opportunity” they would send one or all of their children to a different school

So, who is in mainstream here? GI Bill Veterans, Pell Grants, Student Loans, Both Presidents Bush, the President-elect, 25 states, Congress with the DC Voucher program, 73 percent of Americans, 45 United States senators, Betsy DeVos—or her critics?

It’s pretty obvious that Betsy DeVos is in mainstream and is on the side of our children.

Final criticism: that she used her wealth effectively to support both of these mainstream ideas.

I think she deserves credit for that, not criticism.

Would her critics be happier if she had spent her time and her money trying to deny children from low income families the choices of schools that wealthy families have instead of trying to help them?

We are fortunate that Betsy DeVos is the nominee for U.S. Education Secretary because Betsy DeVos is and has been on our children’s side. 

I support her confirmation and look forward to working with her.

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