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Betsy DeVos says it's 'possible' her family has contributed $200 million to the Republican Party

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next secretary of Education. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next secretary of Education. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Since Donald Trump picked Michigan fundraiser and school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as his secretary of Education, Democrats and other political observers have examined her generous political contributions and any conflicts they might pose.

On Tuesday, at DeVos' confirmation hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders raised the issue again, but DeVos, who is married to the billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, said she didn't know how much her family had contributed to the Republican Party.

Sanders (I-Vt.) wasn't deterred.

"There is a growing fear that ... we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic society, where a small number of very wealthy billionaires control, to some degree, our economic and political life," said the former Democratic presidential candidate.

When DeVos still didn't offer a number, Sanders said he'd heard that the family collectively had contributed $200 million over the years.

"That's possible," she said.

Would DeVos have been chosen to be secretary of Education without those $200 million in donations, Sanders asked?

DeVos said she thought she would have been.

During a three-hour hearing, Sanders and Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee grilled DeVos about her views on charter schools, sexual assault in colleges, funding, school vouchers and the enforcement of civil rights laws.

She provided few specifics about her plans, repeating that she looked forward to working together with representatives from both parties. DeVos focused on her support for providing families with a variety of education alternatives, though she said she supports public schools and the teachers who work there.

She said she is in favor of holding to the current timeline for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the major new successor to the controversial No Child Left Behind law that gives states more leeway to help assure student performance and teacher accountability.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked whether schools should be rated according to students' proficiency -- how much they know -- and their growth -- how much they learn each year. When DeVos didn't respond immediately, Franken said: "It surprises me that you don't know this issue."

DeVos also had a pointed exchange with Sen. Christopher S.  Murphy (D-Conn.) about school violence. Murphy asked her whether guns had any place in schools. "I think that's best left to states and locales to decide," DeVos said.

When Murphy pressed her on that point, she referred to a school in Wyoming she had heard about from another senator that has a "grizzly bear fence."

"I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies," she said.

Murphy asked whether she would support Trump if he were to end gun-free school zones. She said she would support the president, but school violence hurt her heart.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee's highest-ranking Democrat, said she remained "very outraged" by Trump's comments made public last year about groping women without their consent. Murray described the behavior Trump had boasted about, and asked DeVos whether it would be considered assault if it occurred at a school.

DeVos said yes.

The committee is planning to vote on DeVos on Tuesday. Senators wanted more time to question her, in particular because they have not yet received a letter from the Office of Government Ethics outlining how DeVos would avoid conflicts of interest in connection with her financial interests and political contributions.

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