Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education, defended her record on education and equality in an often contentious hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday evening.
Senate Democrats on the committee, in particular, hammered DeVos with questions about her views on public education, charter schools and how they’re funded, school privatization, and her views on issues like the teaching of science in schools, campus assault and her personal views on conversion therapy. They also objected to a ruling by Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that limited them to one round of questions for the nominee (with no follow-ups), which many said was unprecedented.
In one exchange with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), DeVos pushed back against an assertion that she supported conversion therapy because of her family’s past donations, to the tune of $10 million, to the anti-LGBT organization Focus on the Family, which supports the practice on LGBT minors. Franken, citing the rejection of conversion therapy by mainstream mental and medical health organizations, asked her if she still believed in the practice of conversion therapy.
“I have never believed in that,” DeVos responded. “First of all, let me say I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being, and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe, and be free of discrimination. So let’s start there.”
DeVos also objected to Franken’s characterization of her family’s contributions, saying it does not “accurately reflect” the views of her “core family,” meaning herself and her husband, and not extended family members.
The issue was also raised later by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who said she was “heartened” by DeVos’ initial remarks. But Baldwin also noted that some of the organizations to which members of DeVos’ family have donated are hostile to a whole range of LGBT rights.
“I assume there are LGBT students and their parents watching tonight,” asked Baldwin. “What would you say to them to assure that you are going to use your position as Secretary to support LGBT students or students with LGBT parents?”
DeVos responded: “Let me restate again I embrace equality, and I firmly believe in the intrinsic value of each individual, and that every student should have the assurance of a safe and discrimination-free place to become educated. … As a mom, I just can’t imagine having a child that would feel discriminated against for any reason, and I would want my child in a safe environment.”
She also said that Baldwin and others who have criticized her for donations to anti-LGBT groups “may be confusing” her with some other family members or looking at contributions “from 18 or 20 years ago.”
For instance, in response to a question from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), DeVos said she was not involved in the decision by the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, which is run by her mother, to donate to Focus on the Family. When Hassan asked why several years of 990s from the Prince Foundation listed DeVos as the vice president of the foundation, DeVos said it was a “clerical error.”
Prior to the hearing, both Lambda Legal and the National Center for Transgender Equality took issue with DeVos’ ties to anti-LGBT groups and urged the committee to fully vet the nominee and ask in-depth, probing questions to suss out her actual views on education-related issues, particularly as they pertain to LGBT students. But the Log Cabin Republicans wrote a letter to Alexander in support of DeVos’ nomination.
“Ms. DeVos has been maligned in the media as an ‘anti-gay’ activist — allegations directly stemming from her personal views on marriage (which are now immaterial in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling), and contributions from her family foundation (to which she was not a direct party),” Log Cabin’s letter reads.
“Far from an ‘anti-gay’ firebreather, Ms. DeVos actually has a history of working with and supporting gay individuals,” the letter continues. “When Ms. DeVos’ Senior Advisor Greg McNeilly was accosted by a Michigan State Senator who threatened to make his sexual orientation a matter of public record because of his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, Ms. DeVos put an end to the bullying and harassment. Furthermore, in 2013, Ms. DeVos called for the resignation of then-Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema for posting erroneous and vitriolic anti-gay statements online.
“Ms. DeVos should be commended for proving that differences of opinion related to marriage equality do not equate to anti-gay animus,” Log Cabin concludes. “Log Cabin Republicans stands in support of her nomination for Secretary of Education, and encourages her swift confirmation.”