President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education underwent a public examination at her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. The questions — and sometimes diatribes — aimed at Betsy DeVos were what we would expect from the respective political parties in terms of support and opposition. Unfortunately, several substantive questions were left unasked and unanswered.
Republicans generally heralded DeVos’ passion for school choice — particularly for low-income students — and extended warm statements of confidence about her abilities as the next secretary of education.
Many Democrats used it as an opportunity to make a case against DeVos. They sought to highlight her inexperience with public school, financial aid, federal law (e.g., IDEA for children with disabilities) and a common policy debate over student proficiency versus growth.
Ironically, instead of asking as many substantive questions as possible, opponents spent much time decrying the fact that they wouldn’t get a second round to ask additional questions of DeVos.
Sadly, both sides too often traded opportunities for genuine dialogue during the hearing for the chance to score political points. Here are a few questions of substance that the committee should have asked:
1. How do you intend to reduce the federal footprint in education?
DeVos said she would not seek to mandate school choice on states from the federal level. She also said that the agency would not create additional rules outside of the intent of Congress’ education legislation. But it is still unclear how the next administration plans to advocate for local control and parental choice from within the walls of a federal agency while still reducing the federal government’s influence in education.
The next administration should resist the temptation to proliferate more federal mandates when it believes it has the “right answer” to reform. The right answer is to hand power back to the states.
2. What is a better commitment to make for improving public education — funding increases or innovative reforms?
At her confirmation hearing, DeVos was asked if she would commit to not cut a single penny from public education. She did not answer directly. The question reflects a belief held by many within the education community that more money equals education reform.
Research shows that in terms of funding, what matters most in education is how money is spent. America has dramatically increased the amount of money spent on school, yet has seen stagnant national test scores and unimpressive international rankings. Apparently, money is only as good as the ideas it funds.
So if the federal government wants to continue giving Title I funds, those funds should be “portable,” following the child wherever parents believe their child can get the best education for the student’s needs.
3. What does DeVos intend to do with academic standards?
It’s no secret that Common Core is a political lightning rod. Trump told frustrated parents during his campaign that he would get rid of Common Core. In truth, only states can get rid of Common Core standards. Additionally, federal legislation called ESSA limits the federal government’s interference with state academic standards.
Because DeVos has made an array of comments about academic standards in the past, many Americans have been interested to hear how she plans to make good on the promise to allow for rigorous standards while moving away from efforts to create nationalized ones.
The DeVos hearing was long, but it was often dominated by those asking questions rather than the person answering them. We wish we could have heard more from the person who is likely to be our next secretary of education instead of the committee members.
Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.