The billionaire former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party struggled through tough questioning from the committee's Democratic members, making several gaffes that ignited Internet uproar

By Lindsay Kimble
January 18, 2017 02:14 PM

Late Tuesday night, the confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump‘s Education Secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, got underway after significant back-and-forth in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

DeVos, the billionaire former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, struggled through tough questioning by the committee’s Democratic members and gave responses that ignited Internet uproar over her readiness for the position as the nation’s top education policy-maker and policy-enforcer.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee’s Republican chairman, pushed the hearing to an atypical 5 p.m. start time, and allowed each member only one round of five-minute questions. According to The Washington Post, other committees have allowed 10-minute periods for questioning Trump nominees and two of them—Rex Tillerson, for secretary of state, and Jeff Sessions, for attorney general—were subjected to three rounds of questioning per senator.

Alexander’s decision to limit questioning of DeVos and his conduct of the hearing before DeVos was cleared by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics were assailed by angry committee Democrats throughout the evening session.

DeVos and her family have been major donors to the GOP, giving an estimated $818,000 to 20 current Republican senators during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, said the Post. Five senators who received donations from DeVos’ family sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

While committee Republicans like Maine Sen. Susan Collins chided the Democrats’ approach to DeVos during the hearing, some of the nominee’s answers became viral moments. Here are the stand-outs.

DeVos says schools need guns in case of grizzly bear attacks.

When asked by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (D) if guns had any place in or around schools, DeVos said that decision should be “best left to locales and states.”

Pushed further to make a definitive statement, DeVos brought up a Wyoming elementary school that put a fence in place to protect children, saying, “I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Naturally, the Internet had something to say. Wrote one Twitter user, “We need a Secretary of Education that will work hard to end all of the grizzly bear on bear crime in schools. OHHHHH BETSY DEVOS!”

DeVos has no personal experience with using federal student loans.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) used her allotted five minutes to press DeVos on higher education and the Education Department’s massive student loan program, teasing out of DeVos that she has no experience with student loans and has never managed or overseen a billion or trillion dollar loan program.

“Have you ever taken out a student loan from the federal government to pay for college?” Warren asked, to which DeVos replied, “I have not.”

Prodded Warren, “Have any of your children had to borrow money to pay for college?”

Replied DeVos, “They have been fortunate not to.”

DeVos also said she had “no personal experience” with federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to undergraduate students dependent on financial need, cost of attendance and more.

Warren asked DeVos about Trump’s $25 million settlement to Trump University students, questioning if the nominee would protect “waste, fraud and abuse” at similar for-profit colleges.

“Will you commit to enforcing these rules to ensure that no career college receives federal funds unless they can prove that they are actually preparing their students for gainful employment and not cheating them?” Warren further prodded.

DeVos said she would not commit to enforcing the rule, but instead would “review” it. Retorted Warren, “If you cannot commit to use the tools that are already available to you in the Department of Education, then I don’t see how you can be the secretary of education.”

DeVos says states should make decisions about special-education requirements.

During questioning by Virginia senator and 2016 vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine (D), DeVos confirmed that she’s never attended a public K-12 school, nor have her children. She’s also never taught at a public school.

DeVos also struggled to answer Kaine’s questions about the federal civil rights laws that requires states to use federal funding to provide special services to children with disabilities.

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“Should all k-12 schools receiving governmental funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act?” Kaine asked. In response, DeVos said, “I think that’s an issue that’s best left to the states.”

Later, according to the Washington Post, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) asked DeVos if she understood that the aforementioned law was a federal civil rights law. DeVos told Hassan – who, the Post, noted has a disabled son – that she “may have confused it.”

Further, DeVos told Kaine only “I support accountability” when asked if she thinks all schools that receive federal funding – whether public, public charter or private – should be held to the same accountability standards.

Wrote CNN’s Ana Navarro in response, “I had high hopes for DeVos. But as a special-needs sister, I cringed at her lack of familiarity (I’m being kind) re IDEA.”

DeVos seems unaware of the difference between student proficiency and student growth.

“I would like your views on the relative advantage of doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth,” Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D) asked DeVos during his time.

She answered, “Thank you Senator for that question. I think if i’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so that each student is measure according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area…”

Interrupting, Franken told DeVos, “Well that’s growth, that’s not proficiency… this is a subject that’s been debated in the education community for years… it surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”

Franken posted to Facebook late Tuesday night this statement: “Earlier this evening, I questioned Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, and was deeply troubled by the fact that she seemed unfamiliar with some of the most basic issues in education today.”

“Ms. DeVos repeatedly refused to answer questions, let alone offer specifics. That was not what the American people needed to hear. They deserved to see her demonstrate that she understands and can successfully address the profoundly difficult challenges ordinary families face every day when it comes to education: things like making sure their kids are prepared for the 21st century economy, addressing student loan debt, and ensuring kids feel safe in school.”