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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Can Patty Murray get answers from Trump nominee Betsy DeVos?

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 12, 2017

When Michigan billionaire and school “reformer” Betsy DeVos goes before senators for confirmation hearings as education secretary next Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray will have a few questions.

How does DeVos propose to come up with $20 billion for a program to subsidize private-school tuition vouchers? Will it come in part from the $15 billion Title I program, which helps schools educate disadvantaged kids? Will DeVos disclose whether she has investments in education companies that would conflict with her government role, and if so, will she divest them?

Is DeVos looking to erode the foundations of public education?

All signs point to yes. The question for Murray is whether she and the minority can do anything about it.

Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, says her most important task is to get answers to her questions. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, she said, it may influence the vote.

“Democrats, Republicans – all of us are held accountable for our imprimatur to a nominee,” she said. “You have to take that vote. You have to go home to your voters in your home state.”

Murray said she has been hearing from thousands of Washington residents about DeVos and her record of supporting reforms that diverted millions from public schools to for-profit schools with little accountability and subpar performance.

“They are extremely concerned about this nominee in particular,” Murray said in an interview this week. “My responsibility is to make sure I ask these questions.”

While some of the ideas under the umbrella of school choice are broadly popular, and while Republicans have long favored voucher programs, DeVos is among the most extreme – and deep-pocketed – opponents of public schools in the country. She pushed in Michigan for the dramatic expansion of for-profit charter schools at the expense of public schools, with some of the least impressive results you could imagine.

Michigan spends $1 billion on charter schools annually, and four out of five charters are for-profits, which is far above any other state. As it expanded charters, test scores fell and more than half of charters performed below the state average, according to the New York Times. A federal review in 2015 said an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among the state’s worst-performing schools.

Stephen Henderson, editor of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, wrote a scathing column upon DeVos’ nomination: “Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters.”

This is a much different picture than in Washington, where public charters – not for-profit ones – have been added with less recklessness. And it’s different from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Murray co-sponsored with Republican Lamar Alexander, which put a focus on accountability for charters.

Trump frequently mentioned his $20 billion voucher proposal in the campaign. One possible source of that funding would be Title I funds, which go to help students facing various obstacles to learning. (Federal funding accounts for roughly 10 percent of the Spokane Public Schools budget, for example.)

Proponents of vouchers often cite poor children as potential beneficiaries, but it’s hard to imagine that reducing Title I funding to pay private-school tuitions wouldn’t hurt more poor kids than it would help overall – providing limited opportunity for a few, while draining resources for education of the rest. Also, a Title I cut would arrive in Washington in the context of the ongoing debate over school funding.

“That would compound an already fragile situation in Washington state in terms of funding for public education,” Murray said.

DeVos also has a complicated and enormous network of personal investments. The Wall Street Journal has reported she has investments in a company with ties to the student-loan market, for example, and it’s unknown whether there may be other conflicts with education providers, software companies or others with a stake in the field.

“This is really about knowing whether she has investments that are a conflict of interest,” Murray said. “If she does, she needs to divest herself of those.”

However, like other Trump nominees, DeVos hasn’t yet been vetted by the standard ethics review that Cabinet nominees typically undergo before confirmation.

And, like other Trump nominees, it’s not clear whether she ever will be.

No matter how much she’s asked.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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