(Corrects in 6th paragraph to clarify rules)
By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Democrats sliced holes in billionaire Betsy DeVos’ credentials to be the next U.S. Education Secretary at a confirmation hearing on Tuesday, raising doubts whether President-elect Donald Trump’s pick will win approval in the full Senate.
The nomination of DeVos to head an agency that sets policy for younger children and universities and also administers a college financial aid program of $1 trillion has outraged Democrats who believe the Michigan Republican wants to dismantle public education.
Teachers unions, a major constituency for the party, roundly oppose DeVos, a philanthropist and investor.
“Do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican party, that you would be sitting here today?” asked Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who recently ran to be the Democrats’ presidential nominee.
Democratic Senators have made their opposition clear in recent days in letters, speeches and most notably at the hearing.
Next Tuesday, the Education Committee will likely approve sending her name to the full chamber when it votes in an executive session next Tuesday. Then, Democrats could attempt to block the nomination on the Senate floor. Because nominations other than those for the Supreme Court only require a simple majority vote, they will not be able to use a filibuster and would have to convince Republicans to join them in voting against the nomination.
Former Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrats’ candidate for vice president in 2000, gave DeVos a laudatory introduction at the hearing, but other party members were wide-ranging in their criticism.
Minnesota’s Al Franken expressed surprise DeVos was unfamiliar with a hot education debate over measuring student achievement by proficiency or by growth.
Connecticut’s Chris Murphy was dismayed when DeVos did not condemn guns in schools.
Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, an advocate of tough financial regulation, asked whether DeVos or her children had attended public schools, borrowed student loans or received federal financial help known as Pell grants.
“You have no experience with financial aid,” Warren summed up when DeVos answered “no.”
Many were dismayed DeVos would not pledge to carry out rules on sexual assault, for-profit colleges and fair access for students with disabilities, only saying she would review the policies.
Generally, Democrats pressed on how DeVos will manage her investments and companies in the education sector, including an on-line charter school, while serving as the most powerful public figure in the area.
They also asked repeatedly if she intended to divert money to charter schools that operate independently of school districts and are frequently run by corporations and if she would undermine public schools.
“I have major concerns with how you have spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools,” said Washington’s Patty Murray, the committee’s senior Democrat.
DeVos scrambled to reassure them she supports taxpayer-backed education. She also said she will work to give parents choices in the schools their children attend, treat all students equally and respect states’ decisions on education.
The hearing, which was delayed from last week over missing financial disclosures, began at 5 p.m. (EST). Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander only allotted each member five minutes for questions. Democrats called foul, saying that because DeVos has not finished requisite ethics paperwork they are in the dark on issues and need more time.
Alexander said the Office of Government Ethics will produce by Friday a letter outlining resolutions for her potential conflicts of interest.
Committee Republicans universally backed DeVos, applauding her support of vouchers that families may use to pay for private education and of charter schools.
They praised her history with The Potter’s House, which provides “Christ-centered” education, and spoke of her dedication to literacy. (Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)