Mr. President, I’d like to share my thoughts with colleagues today about the President’s nominee to be Secretary of Education. I shared many of these thoughts yesterday with my colleagues on the Senate HELP Committee.
Like my colleague from Maine, this nomination has been one of the most difficult for me since I came to the Senate. As I mentioned in committee, I take very personally the education of the children in my state. I take very personally the contributions that our educators, our administrators in our schools, all that they provide, and the importance that we should all place, that we should all place on the education of America’s children.
I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that I have struggled about how I will cast my vote on the nomination of Mrs. DeVos.
Again I take very personally the success of Alaska’s schools and the success of Alaska’s school children. We’ve got a lot of schools in Alaska, as we all do around the country. My schools I would challenge you are a little bit more diverse than perhaps in other parts of America just because of our geography. We’re isolated, 82% of the communities are not attached by a road, the communities are small, the schools are smaller. In our urban centers, ironically - not ironically but what some find unusual is we have more diversity in our populations then most people could understand or even imagine. One of the neighborhoods in my hometown of Anchorage hosts the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the United States of America. So I have urban schools that have rich diversity and I have very rural, very remote, extremely remote schools that face challenges when it comes to how we deliver education. So knowing that we have a strong - the strongest public school system is a priority for me.
I have spent considerable time one-on-one with Mrs. DeVos. Before and after the committee hearing I spent the entirety of the Senate HELP committee listening carefully to the questions colleagues put to her, afterwards reviewing not only her written responses to me, but those she had responded to other colleagues
I requested that she provide certain commitments in writing. And after speaking with her at length, and considering everything that I have learned, I have the following comments to share.
First I must state that I absolutely believe that Betsy DeVos cares deeply for all children.
I think we all acknowledge that she could have spent her time, her energy, her considerable resources on almost anything else she chose to do. And I admire her for choosing to help children to access a better education. Because she could have chosen many other things, but she chose to work for children, and I appreciate that.
Now as Senators, we are to provide advice and consent to the President’s nominees. My view has been, and has been since I came to the United States Senate, that under almost all circumstances, a President has the right to have their nominees considered and to receive a full vote by the entire Senate. So I have gone back looked at how I as a Senator have handled confirmations under Presidents Bush and President Obama.
When cloture votes have been called on Cabinet nominees, my practice is to vote “aye”. I voted “aye” twice for Secretary of Defense Hagel. I voted “aye” for Secretary of Labor Perez, even though I voted against his confirmation in the final vote.
So Mrs. DeVos.
She has answered thousands of questions put to her.
Neither the Office of Government Ethics, the Senate HELP Committee, nor I have found any substantive reason to question Mrs. DeVos’ name or reputation.
But yet I have heard from thousands – truly thousands of Alaskans who have shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as Secretary of Education. They’ve contacted me by phone, by email, in person.
Their concerns center, as mine do, on Mrs. DeVos’ lack of experience with public education and the lack of knowledge she portrayed at her confirmation hearing. Alaskans not satisfied that she would uphold federal civil rights laws in schools that receive federal funds.
They question her commitment to students with disabilities rights under IDEA. They fear that voucher programs that are intended to serve them may actually rob them of the opportunity to benefit from an education in an inclusive environment with their non-disabled peers.
And after eight years of micromanagement that we’ve seen from this previous Administration, quite honestly they are concerned that Mrs. DeVos will force vouchers on Alaska.
Mrs. DeVos has committed publicly and to me personally that she will not seek to impose vouchers on our states.
She has committed to implementing federal education laws as they are written and intended, and this is a welcome departure from what we have seen from the two previous Secretaries of Education.
She has committed that the focus she will give, not only to Alaska – Mr. President if I may have a minute and a half - she’s committed she will not only give to Alaska but to all states, she will not undermine, erode, or ignore public schools. And that she will in fact, she will work to support public schools.
She has committed that she will come to Alaska in order to learn from Alaska’s educators, our parents, our school board members, and our tribal representatives and to see for herself the challenges we face.
But I still continue to have concerns. I think Mrs. DeVos has much to learn about our nation’s public schools—how they work, and the challenges they face.
I have serious concerns about a nominee to be Secretary of Education who has been so involved in one side of the equation—so immersed in the push for vouchers—that she may be unaware of what actually is successful in the public schools, and what is broken or how to fix them.
Betsy DeVos must show us that she truly understands the children of Alaska and across America—both urban and rural—who are not able to access an alternative choice in education as in so many of my communities.
She must show us that she will work to help the struggling public schools that strive to educate children whose parents are unable to drive them across town to get to a better school.
That she will not ignore the homeless students whose main worry is finding somewhere safe to sleep and for whom their public school is truly a refuge.
That she will fight for the children whose parents do not know how to navigate these educational options.
I believe that my colleagues here in the United States Senate, and the many –many, many that they represent have the right to debate these questions, to air their thoughts, concerns, and perspectives about this nomination. And I believe that any President has the right to expect that we do so.
But Mr. President, I conclude my remarks to make clear that my colleagues know firmly that I do not intend to vote on final passage to support Mrs. DeVos to be Secretary of Education. So I thank the chairman of the committee for working with me and my colleagues on this matter, but I cannot support this nominee
Thank you Mr. President.