Hill urges Bennet to eschew politics in DeVos nomination vote, touts her as Colorado-style education reformer

Author: John Tomasic - January 31, 2017 - Updated: January 30, 2017

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet questions education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, January 17, 2017.
Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet questions education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, January 17, 2017.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and school choice champion, held a telephone press conference Monday on which he lauded multi-millionaire school reform advocate Betsy DeVos as the right person to head the U.S. Department of Education for the Trump administration. The call was meant to put pressure on Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to vote for the DeVos confirmation.

“We know Michael Bennet shares values [with DeVos]” — on fostering diversity of options to increase choice for parents and students, Hill said. So it would be clear, he continued, that “Bennet’s opposition to her confirmation would be for political reasons.”

The DeVos nomination has been the target of an intense protest campaign by public school advocates and progressive citizens and political groups who believe DeVos’s reform philosophy centered around school choice would undercut public education. They say she was chosen for the nation’s top education administration position more for her ideology and history of political campaign contributions than for her preparedness for the job.

On the call Monday, Hill played down DeVos’s lack of formal experience in education and government and what many characterized as her lackluster performance at a Senate nomination hearing two weeks ago. He said voters have demonstrated this year that they’re looking for outsiders to shake things up in Washington and that the DeVos nomination is “making a lot of folks nervous whose jobs depend on maintaining the status quo in education.” He said that “political polish” was overrated.

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos appears at a US Senate committee hearing, January 17, 2017.
Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos appears at a US Senate committee hearing, January 17, 2017.

Senate committee Democrats reportedly have decided as a bloc to try and defeat the nomination by voting against confirmation at Tuesday’s hearing.

Bennet was superintendent of the Denver public school system for four years beginning in 2008. In questioning DeVos during the last hearing, Bennet suggested his position on school choice was different than her position. He said that, in Denver, choice was just another avenue on the way to an overall improved public school system, not a goal in itself. He argued that the Michigan school system where DeVos was most active lacked accountability and that choice seemed more a pet project than a solution.

The hearing was contentious and excerpts have been promoted on the left and right by DeVos supporters and critics. The full exchange between Bennet and DeVos can be viewed at the education committee website, beginning at 2:18:20.

“Every kid in this country should have access to a great public school,” Bennet said. “I support parent’s choices among high-quality public schools and charter schools, and I think that choice plays a critical role in education.

“But the goal for me has never been school choice for its own end. The goal is to have great public schools in every neighborhood so every kid can have a great education. For a kid from a low-income family there’s no difference — there may be a philosophical difference, but there’s no practical difference — between being forced to attend a terrible school and being given the right to choose among five terrible schools. That’s no choice at all, and it’s certainly not a meaningful one.

“In Denver,” he said, “we made a different deal, a deal that said we’re going to create a public choice system and we’re going to authorize charters and we’re going to create innovation schools and strengthen traditional schools. But without exception, we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability. And, as far as I can tell, Detroit and Michigan to a degree has followed exactly the opposite path…”

Democrats have railed against DeVos for being a stranger to the public schools systems she hopes to lead. They point out that she never attended public schools, never worked at a public school and decided against sending her children to public schools. They also suspect her deep Christian faith and commitment to religious schooling and voucher programs would translate as policy that would drain the public schools of students and resources to the benefit of religious schools.

Hill told The Colorado Statesman Friday that he thought DeVos had been unfairly “sandbagged” by committee Democrats.

On Monday’s press call, he said DeVos would work to reduce the role the federal government plays in education and give more power to individual states to shape their school systems. That’s what “so many parents” have told him they want. He celebrated Colorado’s diverse school systems and the popularity of its public charter schools.

“There are 120,000 students going to public charters,” he said. “If you placed them into one school district, it would be the largest school district in the state.”

Hill said focusing on the money DeVos has given to political campaigns was a distraction, even though she has reportedly given to some of the members of the Senate committee voting on her nomination.

“Do they really want to talk about political donations?” he asked. “Because the unions give the most money. I’m not sure they want to go down that road.”

“We talk about people, parents, getting involved in education,” he said. “Well, if only we had more people who committed their time and treasure to education the way Betsy DeVos has done.”

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.