02.06.17

Leahy's Senate Floor Speech This Afternoon In Opposition To The Nomination Of Betsy DeVos To Be Secretary Of Education

Mr. President, I thank the distinguished senior Senator from Minnesota for her comments. She speaks from experience and knowledge, as has the senior Senator from Washington State, on this issue.

In my years here, I have seen thousands of confirmation votes, literally at all levels, up to and including Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices. I have voted for a large majority of a President's nominations--both Republican and Democratic Presidents. Some may not have been those I would have chosen, but I felt that, at least, the President should be given the prerogative, if the person is qualified.

Now, ideology is one thing, and qualification is another. Out of those thousands of confirmation votes, I have a hard time remembering any that were like this one. This one had a whirlwind confirmation hearing and committee vote. It was almost as though they were afraid to have the nominee actually have to appear and answer questions. And now the Senate is going to vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.

I will be very blunt. On the very little time that she was allowed to be shown to the public, she showed--and I certainly believe this--that she does not have the qualifications to uphold the Department of Education's primary goal--that of ensuring that all students--all students, not just the wealthy, but all students--have access to a quality, public education that allows them to succeed.

I am both a father and a grandfather, and I am proud of it. I watched my children go to school. And now I see my grandchildren going to school. I understand well the impact of education on our children. When students have access to strong public education from the very beginning, they are more apt to succeed in the long run.

Our Nation's public schools--as is the case in my home State of Vermont--hold the promise of student success through strong State accountability measures and legal protections regardless of one's race, income, or learning ability. They offer nutritious meals for underserved students, many of whom receive their only meals of the day at school. Any teacher will tell you that if you have a hungry child, you have a child who cannot learn. If a child is fed, you have a child who can learn.

Public education means strong teachers and school leaders, technology in the classroom, an assessment to test not just how well a student can memorize material for an exam on a particular day of the year, but how much they have grown over the course of many months.

Many of the schools have counselors and nurses. They operate under a modern infrastructure to support those with disabilities and children in foster care. But public education also means that both the States and the Federal Government are held accountable for everyone having access to the same excellent resources.

In fact, just over 1 year ago, this body agreed to these protections. We passed the Every Student Succeeds Act here in the Senate by a vote of 85 to 12--an amazing, overwhelming, bipartisan vote. It was the firm agreement among the majority of the Senate--Republicans and Democrats alike--that all students deserve access to critical public school resources in order to succeed. We made a promise that we would do better by our students; that public schools would be the premier standard for outstanding education for all.

Unfortunately, the nominee before us--in the very little time that she was allowed to testify and be questioned in the confirmation hearing--showed that she does not share these same goals. Instead, she has referred to public schools as a ``dead end.''

Well, if you are a billionaire, you have a choice to go wherever you want to school. Maybe these people in a public school are not good enough for you? Well, then, go buy a school if you want. Most people don't have that option. Most people are hard working. My wife and I were when our kids were in school. Our children are today.

What does Betsy DeVos advocate for? She advocates for the privatization of education. She has funneled millions of dollars into organizations and initiatives to promote private school vouchers and school choice.

These efforts have diverted public funds toward private schools, schools that are not held to any antidiscrimination or accountability standards. These schools can discriminate all they want.

At her confirmation hearing--in the very little time that she did speak--she did not understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This is a landmark law. It is a Federal law that public schools in all 50 States must follow.

Lastly, Mrs. DeVos and her family have contributed to anti-LGBT causes and anti-women's health efforts, which are in direct conflict to the one who is supposed to lead the Department of Education. How can a nominee disagree with the mission of the Department of Education and be fit to oversee that agency and promote the civil rights of schools and college campuses?

She also appears to oppose efforts to expand college access, in an era when college is so important.

Again, in the little bit of time she was allowed to testify before the Senate HELP Committee in January, Mrs. DeVos, when asked, would not agree to work with States to offer free community college to eligible students, instead saying that ``nothing in life is truly free.'' This is an easy thing to say if you are a billionaire.

She also admitted to knowing little about the Pell Grant Program and Federal student loans, as neither she nor her children have ever had to use such resources. As most of us know our children will have to use them, this is simply out of touch with the real life expectations of millions of students and families who rely on these funds to make college attainable.

It is what I hear from hard-working families in Vermont. Parents tell me that their child is going to be the first one in their family to go to college, and the only reason they can do it is because they can get Pell grants or Federal student loans. Mrs. Devos's answer is: What are those?

College tuition rates have climbed more than 300 percent in the last decade. It is unacceptable to deny students Federal financial resources. To say, well, if you are rich, you can have them, but otherwise, tough.

As it is, students are increasingly saddled by insurmountable student loan debt. Many forgo starting a family, or buying a house or a car. Many of these students have also fallen prey to for-profit institutions, many of which continue to offer the false promise of gainful employment upon graduation. In reality, many of these institutions offer nontransferable credits or unaccredited degrees, and are increasingly shuttering their doors, leaving students with egregious debt and nowhere to turn to finish their degrees.

The Department of Education has an extremely important role to ensure that all students--of every race, income level, or whether that student has disabilities or not--have access to the critical tools provided by public schools and by student financial aid programs.

Thousands--thousands--of Vermonters have called or written to me worried that Mrs. DeVos does not agree with these principles. When I say thousands, to put that in context, we are the second smallest State in the Union. Thousands have contacted me. I share these concerns of my fellow Vermonters.

They know my children went to public school. They want to be able to send their children to public school too. They want the best education.

I am telling these Vermonters I will not support this confirmation. It is dangerous and shortsighted to confirm someone who has so much to learn about our Nation's public schools and the challenges they face.

Universal free public schools were a revolutionary American invention. It has helped make America the great Nation it is today. So in the United States, we should strengthen public schools, not snub them.

Mrs. DeVos is the wrong choice for our children but also for our Nation's future. Our public schools need strong leadership, not someone who has made it her life's work to undermine their success. So I oppose this nomination. I hope my fellow Senators will too.

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