Sen. Warner’s opposition to Education pick moves to Senate floor

mark warnerSenator Mark Warner spoke out today against the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. All Democratic Senators and at least two Republicans announced that they will oppose Ms. DeVos’ nomination, which would require Vice President Mike Pence to travel to Capitol Hill to cast the deciding vote scheduled for Tuesday morning.

In his speech on the Senate floor, Warner noted his opposition to Ms. DeVos’ due to her lack of knowledge of key federal education policy regarding children with special needs, campus sexual assault, gun free zones, among others. Warner read several of the thousands of messages he has received from Virginians opposed to DeVos’ confirmation.

Sen. Warner previously announced he will vote against Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, Health & Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Price, and Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin.

 

Transcript

I rise today to add my voice to those expressing concerns about the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education.

This chorus of concern has not only come from my colleagues who have already come to the floor last week and earlier today or throughout, I know, the evening or tomorrow morning, but it also comes from literally tens of thousands of my constituents who have contacted me about Ms. DeVos.

I have been flooded with phone calls, emails, and social media messages from Virginians all across the Commonwealth, in many ways in numbers that I haven’t seen since the debate about the ACA [Affordable Care Act.] They worry about what her confirmation would mean for our children, our students, and for progress toward providing every child with a quality public education, regardless of their ZIP code.

Like many of my colleagues, I bring to this debate some direct experience as a state or local elected official. I have the great honor of serving as Governor of Virginia. I was responsible in that job for how we were preparing our students for success in college and the workforce.

I took this responsibility very, very personally, as somebody who attended good public schools all his life. I was lucky enough to be the first of my family to graduate from college. I realize that I wouldn’t have been able to be Governor, or obviously for that matter, Senator, without that foundation that I received from my education. I had the opportunity to go to public schools in three different states growing up. Many of those public school teachers were the folks who framed my views about government, about our system, about how to actually get through in life. And I believe in many ways public schools and the whole notion of public education really forms the cornerstone of what is the social contract in America, that getting that basic public education was a right of all individuals.

And when I think back on everything I was able to accomplish as Virginia’s Governor, the validation I valued the most was that when I left the Governor’s Office in 2006, Virginia was consistently recognized by independent validators as the nation’s Best State for a Lifetime of Educational Opportunity, from pre-K to college and beyond.

So as someone who was committed to reforming and looking at how we can make sure our public education works for all and someone who spend a career before in business and tried producing in a philanthropic sense on how we could expand educational opportunities, I believe that I bring some experiences to this debate.

And that’s why, Mr. President, I stand here today unable to support the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education.

To put it simply, Ms. DeVos’ single-minded focus on charter schools, and her focus on converting federal education dollars into a different program, is simply out of step with the education climate in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Let me make clear. I have supported public charter schools. I believe they are a tool that ought to be in the tool kit. I’ve taken on those forces who stand for simply no reform in education. But unconvinced that Ms. DeVos’ complete setting of different priorities at the federal level is in the best interest of our students, our teachers, or our public schools.

And that is exactly what I’ve been hearing from constituents all over the state. I’d like to very briefly share some of those concerns that I’ve heard.

Laura from my hometown of Alexandria writes this: Quote, “While many of our…President’s cabinet picks worry me, none worry me more than Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.” She says she comes from rural Appalachia, where she said she worked her way through public schools in one of the poorest counties in the country, but that didn’t stop her from ending up here in Northern Virginia, working for the intelligence community. “In areas like my hometown, where public schools are the only option, they become the lifeblood of the community… On limited resources, our high school had to get creative about how to provide for the students, often partnering with the local university. But shutting the school down in favor of charters, or adding a for-profit alternative,” wasn’t an option in her low-income area.

A school administrator from the Shenandoah Valley says, quote: “At her confirmation hearing it was quite clear she had no knowledge of instruction, curriculum, federal programs and – most disturbing – had no understanding of the federal laws that are in place to protect children with disabilities. It is serious business to educate children, and the consequences are huge if we do it wrong.”

Another comment – and again, these are just samples of thousands. Olivia, a teacher in Williamsburg shared this: “I see so much potential in my students every day, and I feel very energetic as a young teacher about the opportunities that I know our public schools are providing already –  and are capable of providing in the future.”

She said she was concerned for her LGBT students, her low-income students, and “for the future of myself and my colleagues as public school educators trying to do good for our students.”

Mr. President, I have received of thousands similar heartfelt messages, from every corner of Virginia. Now, I welcome this level of public attention and citizen engagement. And sometimes, as the President’s nominees have come forward, I voted for many of them, much to the consternation of some folks. But it is my job to weigh, regardless of that public opinion, weigh what I think is best for students in Virginia, for that matter, students across the country.

With this kind of outpouring – from teachers, parents, students, administrators, civil rights groups, charter school proponents and opponents, from both sides of the political aisle –  I believe it does weigh.

And that’s what I’ve done: I’ve listened to my constituents, but more important I have listened to Ms. DeVos’ own words before the Senate HELP Committee. And let me tell you, I still have a lot of unresolved questions after reviewing Ms. DeVos’ testimony.

For starters, Ms. DeVos did not demonstrate that she understands that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). She didn’t understand it was a federal law, passed by Congress and signed by President George H.W. Bush. Contrary to the impression that Ms. DeVos seemed to have at her confirmation hearing, saying that somehow complying with IDEA was simply a voluntary measure. That is not right, it’s not the law, and boy, of boy, did that frighten a whole lot of parents whose kids have special needs, who, without IDEA, would not have those needs met. They are concerned that Ms. DeVos’ seeming lack of familiarity with IDEA is indicative of how, if confirmed, her Department of Education would fail to protect the rights of these children and every child to a free and appropriate public education to allow even kids with special needs to flourish.

Another area under the Department of Education’s jurisdiction where I have concerns about Ms. DeVos’ commitment and level of understanding is campus sexual assault and campus enforcement. Since 2014, I have been proud to support bipartisan legislation led by my colleagues Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill –  the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. At the end of last Congress, this legislation had the support of more than one-third of the United States Senate, as well as a number of law enforcement agencies and many of our leading colleges and universities. The Department of Education’s own Office for Civil Rights has also played a very important role in initiating and conducting Title IX investigations. So you can understand why many folks – myself included – were concerned when Ms. DeVos did not demonstrate any depth of knowledge about the differences of opinion surrounding particular policy issues related to campus sexual assault.

Similarly, when asked about a basic principle of education policy about measuring students’ achievement, Ms. DeVos was not able to articulate an understanding of the difference between growth and proficiency.

In that same vein – and while this has become the subject of late-night comedy, I think it is a very serious matter – Ms. DeVos was not able to clearly express her understanding or commitment to enforcing the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which again, is federal legislation also signed by President Bush where compliance is not an option.

These are fundamental tenets of federal education policy, not some obscure metrics, not small bills that languished in committee or small compromises. These are the principles and cornerstones of federal education civil rights policy, and they could not be more central to the Secretary of Education’s core responsibilities of safeguarding students’ civil rights and safety.

For all of these reasons, and others, I’m not able to support Ms. DeVos’ nomination to be Secretary of Education.

I know, Mr. President, you have had to hear a number of these comments. I hope that if she is not confirmed, the President will send down an Education Secretary nominee that brings more mainstream views to this very important issue. I’m all for education reform, but it’s got to be led by someone who will always, always put the needs of our kids and making sure they all get a fair and appropriate education is guaranteed.

With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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