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Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Education, faced tough questions on Tuesday from Democratic lawmakers at her charged confirmation hearing.
DeVos refused to promise that she would not privatize or strip funding from the public schools she would oversee if confirmed.
Asked bluntly by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington whether she would commit to keeping funding for public schools intact, DeVos dodged the question.
"I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students," she said. "We acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them, and I'm hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them."
"I take that as not be willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education," Murray replied.
"I guess I wouldn't characterize it in that way," DeVos said.
Murray also pressed DeVos on potential conflicts of interests that could arise from her family’s long history of donating its vast wealth to Republican candidates and causes. She is the daughter-in-law of Amway cofounder Richard DeVos, who Forbes has estimated is worth $5.1 billion
Trump’s transition team said Tuesday morning that DeVos had last month submitted a certified ethics agreement and financial disclosure statement, which would reveal any conflicts of interests she might have if confirmed. However, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has yet to clear her.
"Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved," DeVos said. "I will not be conflicted. Period. I commit that to you all."
Tuesday’s hearing turned testy before DeVos had even said a word. Virtually every Democratic member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee repeatedly asked the chairman, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for more time to question the cabinet nominee. But each time Alexander refused, citing a "precedent" of five-minute rounds of questioning for education secretary nominees. Multiple Democratic members said they’d never heard of such a rule.
DeVos has raised numerous concerns for her support of school choice and voucher programs that critics say would pull resources from struggling public schools and stifle diversity. Supporters say such programs would force schools to be competitive, fostering an environment that would create educational innovation as well as offer parents more choices when it comes to their children's education.
DeVos’ nomination has also been opposed for her family’s ties to anti-LGBT groups and for her lack of experience in public education.
Asked by Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota whether she believed in conversion therapy, a medically discredited practice that seeks to turn gay people straight, DeVos stated plainly that she did not.
"I have never believed in that," she said. "I fully embrace equality and believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students … should be able to attend schools and be free of discrimination."
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Other answers DeVos gave were less clear.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pressed DeVos on whether she’d support tuition-free college —� a central pillar of his 2016 campaign. DeVos was non-committal.
"Senator, I think that’s a really interesting idea," she said, adding that "we also have to think about the fact that there’s nothing in life that’s truly free."
Sanders also asked DeVos a pointed question about her family’s decades of political donations to the GOP.
"Do you think that if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?" he said.
DeVos replied: "I do think there would be that possibility. I have been working hard to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children."
In addition, DeVos faced tough scrutiny about her position on combating campus sexual assault — she said it would be "premature" for her to commit to upholding the Obama administration’s Title IX guidance on the matter — and on her preparedness to oversee the country’s student loans.
In one of the hardest-hitting rounds of questioning Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pointed out that DeVos has "no personal experience with college financial aid or with management of higher education."
Her supporters, however, suggested the criticism she’d received was unfair. Former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who introduced DeVos to the committee, called her a "change agent" who would fight for necessary reform, while Sen. Alexander said her views on school choice put her "in the mainstream."
"Betsy DeVos, in my opinion, is on our children’s side," said Alexander.