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  • Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017.

    Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017. | Photo: Reuters

Published 18 January 2017

Betsy DeVos' answers showed that not only did she have strong financial ties to the Republican Party, but that she knew very little of the education system.

President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary appointee was grilled on Tuesday about her family’s financial ties to the Republican Party and her lack of experience within the education sector.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was among the first who came out swinging during Tuesday’s Senate Health & Education Committee, questioning Betsy DeVos about her family’s massive donations to the Republican party over the years. After getting her to admit that her family had donated at least US$200 million over the years, Sanders questioned whether that had given her a leg up.

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“I don’t mean to be rude,” the former Democratic presidential candidate said, asking, “do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who led the state’s Republican Party in 1996 and 2000, could simply respond by drawing attention to the one issue she’s had experience with – school choice.

“I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children,” she answered.

School choice, however, simply refers to her pushing school vouchers – which allow parents to use public money to enrol their children in private schools – on low income families.

But the measure only served to pump more federal money into private and sometimes religious schools, leaving the public school system woefully underfunded. DeVos has additionally favored tax credits that give money to private school scholarship funds, Vox reported.

"I have major concerns with how you have spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools," Washington's Patty Murray, the committee's Senior Democrat, said.

While other senators disagreed with Sanders' line of questioning focusing on her donations and money, they nevertheless jumped on her glaring lack of experience with education outside of school vouchers.

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For instance, as education secretary, DeVos would be in charge of the laws governing how states should evaluate their schools and whether they should focus more on proficiency or growth.

The debate is an important one, as it establishes the difference between measuring success by whether kids have achieved a sufficient benchmark in terms of proficiency or whether they are actually making some progress in school.

Measuring proficiency alone has been criticized for as an approach unable to account for the growth that certain kids with personal, economic or political obstacles might be undergoing even if they are not hitting the same benchmarks as the others.

But DeVos seemed unaware of most this.

After wrongly “correlating” proficiency to “competency and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area,” Sen. Franken blunty corrected her.

“That’s growth. That’s not proficiency,” he said, adding that the debate between the two had been discussed by the “education community for years.”

“It surprises me that you don’t know this issue,” he noted with disapproval.

The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act that ran from 2002 to 2016, gives states more freedom to choose how to hold schools accountable.

This means states could choose to focus more on growth, as opposed to the premium that Washington placed on proficiency under the old law.

DeVos obvious lack of expertise with the subject is worrisome as she will potentially be the one deciding which measures to focus on.

Other areas where she lacks expertise is with higher education, students with disabilities and student debt.

DeVos has not still finished filing required ethics paperwork. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said. The Office of Government Ethics will produce by Friday a letter outlining resolutions for her potential conflicts of interest, Reuters reported.

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