Sens. Roberts, Moran unite behind DeVos for education secretary despite widespread criticism

Kansas U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have both expressed support for Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary, despite widespread opposition and concern from the Kansas education community.

DeVos, who is married to billionaire Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune, is widely known as a champion of voucher programs, charter schools and other kinds of “school choice” programs. The two are also known as major contributors to Republican congressional campaigns.

Several Senate Democrats have pointed out that DeVos owes an estimated $5.3 million in fines and late fees to the Ohio Election Commission for violations of that state’s campaign finance laws committed by a now-defunct political action committee she headed, the All Children Matter PAC. Those senators have said she should pay off those fines before she is confirmed as education secretary.

DeVos went through a rocky confirmation hearing Jan. 17 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Roberts serves on. During that hearing, she appeared confused about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and at one point said states should have the right to decide whether to enforce it, despite the fact that it is a federal civil rights law.

She also would not commit to the idea that if charter schools and private schools receive public money that they should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

And she was widely criticized nationally for her statements that it should be up to states to decide whether guns should be allowed in schools, mentioning that some locations might need guns for protection against grizzly bears.

In statements released earlier this week, though, Roberts and Moran said that in private meetings with them, DeVos eased their concerns.

“She gave me her commitment that she will fully enforce and implement the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act,” Roberts said in a statement released Tuesday.

In a separate statement Wednesday, Moran said: “Ms. DeVos confirmed to me that there will be no federally mandated voucher program in the state of Kansas. She assured me that the state, local districts and school boards will retain their important role in administering our school and determining our students’ curriculum.”

Moran went on to say that DeVos had vowed to to pursue full funding for IDEA and that “she agrees that we must return control over our students’ education to the state and local levels by implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is the latest renewal of the 1960s-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which directs federal funding for public schools. The previous version of the law was known as No Child Left Behind.

Those statements, however, did not satisfy many education leaders in Kansas.

“Completely unqualified,” said Mark Desetti, who lobbies for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Her entire adult life has been about dismantling public education and destroying it.”

“This would be like taking the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and making him the secretary of agriculture overseeing ranching and livestock,” he added.

Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that organization does not take positions on individuals who are nominated for jobs, but he said many school board members in Kansas have expressed grave concerns about DeVos.

“We have always had concerns about the role of private schools being publicly supported and what that means, the issue of charter schools, so we have concerns about her policies,” Tallman said.

Both Desetti and Tallman said the mere fact that DeVos has promised not to “mandate” charter schools — privately operated schools that receive public funding — does not mean that she won’t pursue policies that could pressure states into accepting them.

“One of the things that has been talked about, though, is federal programs that would either encourage or reward if you did, or penalize if you didn’t,” Tallman said.”You don’t have to do these types of programs, but you’re not going to get any federal money if you don’t. That’s another area of concern.”

Likewise, the Kansas PTA does not take positions on nominations, but it posted a statement on its website urging PTA members to share the group’s policy positions on key issues, including: “The PTA opposes any private school choice system — vouchers, tax credits or deductions — that would divert public school resources.”

The Senate is scheduled to take a cloture vote Friday to end a Democratic filibuster of her confirmation. A final vote is expected Monday.

So far, two Republican senators, [Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska][4], have said they will oppose DeVos’ confirmation. If all Democrats and independents vote no as well, that would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate, leaving Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote.