Legislative Activity

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Moves Forward as Opposition and Controversy Build

On Tuesday, January 31 the Senate HELP Committee voted 12-11 along party lines to move forward with Betsy DeVos’ confirmation to serve as Secretary of Education. Shortly after the Committee vote, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) made announcements they will vote no when the vote is brought up before the full Senate. No other Republicans have indicated they will vote against Mrs. DeVos at this time, meaning there is currently a 50/50 split which would require Vice President Mike Pence to act as a tie breaking vote. The Senate voted at 6:30 AM on Friday, February 3 to proceed with her nomination and a vote is expected early this week for confirmation.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Mrs. DeVos turned in the remaining answers in writing to the over 800 questions HELP Committee members submitted following her January 17 hearing. Some of the questions include her views on the federal role in higher education, protecting civil rights, and campus sexual assault. While some of her answers showed her interest in developing well-reasoned, fair policy, Democrats have some concerns she may have plagiarized answers from Educational Leadership, a publication from the professional education association ASCD.

While another letter signed by more than 250 civil rights groups was submitted opposing her confirmation this week, the American Federation for Children, Mrs. DeVos’ former advocacy group, released a list of Democrats who are supporting her nomination.

Democrats Make Concerns with Nomination Hearings and New Education Staff Known

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP Committee, introduced an amendment Tuesday, January 31 during a hearing to adopt Committee rules for the 115th Congress that would require Cabinet nominees under HELP Committee jurisdiction to provide a minimum of three years of tax returns. Citing potential conflicts of interest and President Trump’s “unprecedented” mixing of business and personal finances with public office, she emphasized the importance of complete transparency when considering potential nominees. Republicans opposed the amendment and it was not adopted.

Following the announcement of several new Department Education staff on Friday, January 27, Politico and reported on somewhat troublesome social media posts from the new appointees. Sen. Murray and five other Democrats from the HELP Committee sent a February 1 letter to Jason Botel, senior White House adviser for education, and Phil Rosenfelt, Acting Secretary of Education, expressing their concern over “racist, bigoted, and misogynistic statements” on social media from several of President Trump’s staff at the Department of Education. Mr. Botel and Mr. Rosenfelt have not replied to the letter yet.

This Week’s Hearings

On Tuesday, February 7, the House Education and Workforce Committee has scheduled a hearing titled “Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education.” The witnesses will be:

  • Beth Akers, Senior Fellow, The Manhattan Institute;
  • William E. Kirwan, Co-Chair, Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education;
  • Jose Luis Cruz, President, Lehman College of the City University of New York; and
  • Kevin Gilligan, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Capella Education Company.

Regulatory Activity

Trump Administration Looks to Restructure Department of Education

If confirmed, Betsy DeVos’ education team has already begun discussing restructuring the Department of Education to remove the position of under-secretary. Formerly filled by Ted Mitchell under President Obama, this position traditionally oversees Federal Student Aid, post-secondary education, career and technical education, among others. This move would concentrate power with a potential Secretary DeVos, her chief of staff, and the Deputy Secretary and is seen as a way to compromise on campaign rhetoric to shutter the Department of Education altogether.

Additionally, Jerry L. Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, has been appointed by President Trump to lead a task force on higher education to identify changes to the department’s policies and procedures as response to “overreaching regulation.” The ultimate goal of the task force is to pare back the department and give schools and the accrediting agencies more freedom to govern.