Education nominee says states should determine school gun policies, Senators question time allotted for hearing

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WASHINGTON — Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump‘s education secretary nominee, said it should be up to states whether guns are allowed in schools, citing grizzly bear protection as part of her answer.

She also said she would support Trump if he moved to ban gun-free schools zones, a position he advocated on the campaign trail.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Sandy Hook, the site of the 2012 school shooting, asked DeVos if she believes guns have “any place in and around schools.”

“I think that is best left to locales and states to decide,” she said.

After Murphy pushed DeVos about why she can’t say definitively whether they belong, DeVos brought up a story Sen. Mike Enzi told earlier about a school in Wyoming that has fences around it to protect against grizzly bears.

“I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school he is talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine there is probably a gun in a school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said.

The comment drew some laughs in the room.

As for Trump’s campaign pledge to end gun free school zones, DeVos said she would support the President-elect on the issue.

“If the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence,” she said.

Murphy, a gun control advocate, invited DeVos to Connecticut.

DeVos stood firm about her long held beliefs that parents — not the government — should be able to choose where to send children to school, pledging Tuesday to push voucher programs should she be confirmed to lead the nation’s education system.

DeVos has been a political heavyweight for decades, spending millions to advance conservative causes in her home state of Michigan and across the country. Much of her fortune had gone towards backing politicians and organizations that encourage voucher programs, allowing parents to send their children to private schools and helping them pay for it.

“It’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve. Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child,” DeVos said, adding that she will push for more access to charter, home and religious schools.

DeVos said that she would be a “a strong advocate for great public schools,” but would support “a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

DeVos’ support for voucher programs are no surprise to Democrats on the committee, however, and while that view will likely be questioned on Tuesday, it is a host of other issues where DeVos is largely a blank slate that senators on the committee plan to probe.

Conflicts of interest

Tuesday offered DeVos a chance fill in her own personal beliefs on a host of controversial education issues, with Democrats particularly interested in her ties to education companies and possible accusations of conflict-of-interest between DeVos and those she will seek to regulate.

These concerns have been exacerbated by the fact that DeVos’ ethics paperwork, a requirement for anyone seeking a Cabinet post, has not yet been cleared by the Office of Government Ethics.

While the paperwork is not required to be approved before a hearing, as a Republican committee aide noted, it is required before the committee votes, meaning the delay in paperwork approval could delay DeVos’ confirmation.

“I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics,” Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat, said Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also expressed his frustration with Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander said there would only be one round of senator questions. Schumer said she was controversial and Democrats need more than one five-minute period to ask her questions, adding that Alexander should schedule a second hearing and warned if he doesn’t if could impact how Democrats deal with confirming other nominees.

GOP donor

DeVos has been a prolific Republican donor for decades. She has given millions to groups that advocate for school privatization and voucher programs, including the American Federation for Children, a group she chaired from 2009 to 2016.

Like several of Trump’s Cabinet picks, DeVos has tremendous wealth. Forbes estimates DeVos and her husband, Dick, are worth upwards of $5 billion. She has also donated to at least four of the senators who heard her testimony on Tuesday.

Responding to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders, DeVos said “collectively (it) is possible” her family has given around $200 million to Republican causes over the years.

Franken questions qualifications

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, questioned whether DeVos has the “breadth and depth” of knowledge to serve as education secretary.

Franken started his turn at questioning by asking DeVos whether she believes in judging children on growth or proficiency. DeVos stumbled on the question and seemingly didn’t know that this was a debate within the education community.

“It surprises me that you don’t know this issue,” Franken said, later adding that he is, in fact, “not that surprised that you don’t know this issue.”

Franken then turned to DeVos’ donation to Focus on the Family, an organization that believes conversion therapy for LGBT. Franken directly asked DeVos whether she “still believes” in conversion therapy.

“I have never believed in that,” DeVos said, adding, “I fully embrace equality.”

DeVos and her family — through three family foundations — have given more than $10 million to Focus on the Family, according to watchdog groups.

Franken then directed his comments at Alexander, saying DeVos’ answers show “why we want more questions” to see whether DeVos has the “breadth and depth of knowledge who has that important job.”

Sexual assault

Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania asked DeVos whether she will commit to upholding the Obama administration’s 2011 guidance on Title IX to adjudicate campus sexual assault.

DeVos would not commit to doing that.

“It would be premature for me to do that today,” she said.

DeVos, the mother of four, said the issue of campus sexual assault “is really piqued on this issue,” but added that she would work to get read in on the issue once she gets to the Education Department.

Trump tape

DeVos said she would consider actions the President-elect described on a 2005 hot mic tape released during the 2016 campaign to be sexual assault.

Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate committee considering DeVos’ nomination, asked the Michigan Republican whether she would consider the actions described on the tape — “kissing and touching women and girls without their consent,” she said paraphrasing Trump — to be sexual assault.

“Yes,” DeVos answered simply.

The “Access Hollywood” tape rocked the race and led to days’ worth of news coverage about Trump’s comments.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said on the tape, after describing how he would kiss and grope women without their consent.

Trump responded to the video by apologizing “if anyone was offended.”

“This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago,” he said.

DeVos, should she be confirmed, would oversee the enforcement of campus sexual assault rules. During the hearing, she told Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, that she could not commit to continuing the Obama administration’s guidance that schools that don’t investigate campus sexual assault would be violating Title IX and could lose funding.