Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate and President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of education, faced tough questions during her confirmation hearing Tuesday from many senators on the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but not from Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts.
Instead, Roberts steered entirely clear of all K-12 education issues during his five minutes of questioning and focused solely on federal regulations affecting higher education.
Recalling a meeting he'd held recently with higher education officials in Kansas, including, apparently, Johnson County Community College, Roberts held up a chart that he'd evidently printed off of a computer. Roberts remarked on the large volume of federal programs and regulations that officials at Kansas public colleges and universities told him they deal with.
"These are 34 topics or areas of federal regulation, some of them very, very, very important," Roberts said. "But the collective judgment was that they were so intrusive, so expensive, so time-consuming that they had to get an office of compliance just to look at the federal regulations, and then they assign bad-news bearers to go tell all the various departments that make up the Johnson County Community College."
Roberts went on to say that the sheer volume of regulations indicated to him "that we need to work together to eliminate many of these burdensome regulations that hinder the institutions of higher education's main goal, to educate our students effectively and efficiently."
Roberts wasn't specific about which regulations he wants to repeal. Among the federal regulations that apply to higher education institutions are Title IX regulations that ban gender-based discrimination, along with a host of financial regulations relating to federally funded research and federal student financial aid programs.
While Roberts was almost alone in focusing attention on the Department of Education's role in higher education, most of the other senators focused their questions on K-12 education, and in particular DeVos' support for charter schools and voucher programs that use public funds to pay tuition costs at private and parochial schools.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tried to get DeVos to identify how much money she and her husband, billionaire Dick DeVos, who is heir to the Amway fortune, had contributed to political candidates over the years, a figure he estimated at about $200 million.
"That's possible," DeVos said.
Some of the sharpest questioning came from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who challenged DeVos' knowledge and familiarity with fundamental issues confronting K-12 education, such as the question of whether the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP exams, should focus on measuring "proficiency" or student "growth."
"This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years," Franken said. "I've advocated growth, as the chairman and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom who, no matter what they do, will never get to proficiency. So I've been an advocate for growth, but it surprises me that you don't know this issue."
Roberts, however, pointed out that the committee plans to work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act in the coming months and that "regulations are one of the key areas this committee will focus on" during that process.
"Will you be a partner in addressing many of these time-consuming regulations?" Roberts asked.
"Yes, I can commit to you that if confirmed I will look forward to working with you and this committee on that act and on the regulations you've referred to, and wanting to help free our institutions of higher learning to the greatest extent possible, to do what they do best," DeVos replied.
Wednesday afternoon, Democrats in the Kansas Legislature issued a joint letter to Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, criticizing her stance on charter schools and urging the senators to reject DeVos’ nomination. “She’s never attended public schools, taught or administrated, nor were her children educated in public schools,” the letter stated. “She is unqualified for the position of Education Secretary and her confirmation will imperil our students – particularly those most vulnerable.”
Kansas' four-year high school graduation rate was tied for 12th in the country at 83 percent for the 2010-2011 academic year.
The data released by the U.S. Department of Education represents the first-ever list detailing state-by-state graduation rates using more rigorous measures, the agency said.
"By using this new measure, states will be more honest in holding schools accountable and ensuring that students succeed," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "Ultimately, these data will help states target support to ensure more students graduate on time, college and career ready," said Duncan, who visited Kansas in September and gave a speech at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.
Iowa had the highest graduation rate at 88 percent, while Vermont and Wisconsin were tied for second at 87 percent. Six states — Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas — were at 86 percent, while Illinois and Maine were at 84 percent.
At 83 percent were Kansas, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.