By Kate Zernike
Nominees for secretary of education have typically breezed through confirmation by the Senate with bipartisan approval.
But Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice for the post, is no typical nominee. She is a billionaire with a complex web of financial investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from the department she would oversee. She has been an aggressive force in politics for years, as a prominent Republican donor and as a supporter of steering public dollars to private schools.
Her wealth and her politics seem likely to make her confirmation hearing unusually contentious, and possibly drawn out.
The hearing, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday of this week, was postponed until Tuesday after Democrats complained she had not completed an agreement with the independent Office of Government Ethics that outlined a plan to deal with potential conflicts of interest. The ethics office has said it has not completed its review of Ms. DeVos, which is required before the office can make any agreement. A spokesman for Ms. DeVos said she had responded to a first round of questions from the office last weekend.
On Thursday, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee that will hold the hearing, said she and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s Republican chairman, “have some concerns about missing information” on the financial disclosure forms that Ms. DeVos has filed with the Senate. Ms. Murray would not specify what they were looking for, because those disclosures are not public, but said they had asked Ms. DeVos for additional information. Ms. Murray said she had “pushed very hard” not to hold the hearing until Ms. DeVos had completed her agreement with the ethics office.
“This is a candidate with extremely complicated financial dealings,” the senator said. “We have to know, if there are conflicts of interests, how those are going to be resolved. If we don’t have that, it’s incumbent on all of us to say we cannot vote for that.”
Some Republican committee leaders, including Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have said they will hew to a tradition of not holding hearings until the ethics office signs off on the nominee.
But a spokeswoman for Mr. Alexander said his panel — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — had “no rules” about a need for an ethics review, and that the chairman intended to hold the hearing on Tuesday regardless.
Mr. Alexander also said he would limit senators on the panel — 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats — to five minutes of questions each, after opening statements by him and Ms. Murray.
His office noted that Rod Paige, President George W. Bush’s first education secretary, had a hearing eight days before his ethics review was complete. But Mr. Paige, a school superintendent when he was nominated, did not have nearly the same wealth or financial investments as Ms. DeVos.
Mr. Alexander’s office said the committee would not hold a vote on Ms. DeVos’s nomination until her ethics review was complete.
That could take awhile. In a letter to Ms. Murray about the DeVos nomination, the ethics office said on Monday that “multiple rounds of questions and revisions are usually needed before a report can be finalized,” because of the complexity of financial disclosure rules. And some nominees “find it difficult to untangle” their investments quickly. So the vetting process “can take weeks,” the office wrote, “and, in the case of extremely wealthy individuals, sometimes months.”
Democrats have repeatedly noted that Penny Pritzker, a billionaire real estate entrepreneur who became the commerce secretary during President Obama’s second term, took six months to complete her ethics agreement.
Ms. DeVos and her husband have a larger fortune, estimated at $5 billion.The Windquest Group, their investment firm, has holdings in many companies that invest in other interests such as Social Finance, which refinances student loans — a potential conflict, given the federal government is the biggest student lender.
Ms. DeVos also lists herself as a director of the RDV Corporation, which similarly invests in companies with education products, including digital textbooks and onlinecharter schools.
Unlike most past secretaries, Ms. DeVos has never been an educator or overseen a state education agency. She did not attend public schools, or send her children to them.
Her primary involvement in education has been as a benefactor and board member for groups that advocate steering taxpayer dollars away from public schools in the form of vouchers to help families attend private and religious schools.
In her home state, Michigan, she pushed and defended a charter school law that is lax compared with policies in other states. She consistently fought legislation that would stop failing charter schools from expanding, andargued to shut down the troubled Detroit public school system and use the money saved to send students to charters or private schools.
A Republican group pushing for Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, America Rising Squared, has flooded reporters with testimonials from supporters and politicians who say Ms. DeVos is in line with “mainstream” Americans in her support of school choice. That group, and one calling itself Friends of Betsy DeVos, insist that the opposition to her nomination is funded by teachers’ unions that want to deny poor families a way out of failing schools.
But school choice means different things to different people. Many educators and groups that support charter schools — which are public — do not support vouchers, which steer public money away from public schools by giving families money to spend on private school tuition.
So teachers’ unions have opposed her nomination, but so, too, have organizations that have fought unions.
The main association of charter schools in Massachusetts, for example, which is generally considered to have the nation’s best charters, sent a letter to the state’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, who sits on the committee that will hold the DeVos hearing. The letter expressed concern about Ms. DeVos’s support for vouchers and loose accountability in Michigan, which it said would “reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”
Mr. Trump has promised to steer $20 billion in federal education funds to vouchers, and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization, said he was worried that the Department of Education would take the money from Title I funds, which go to public schools serving the poorest students.
Other groups have noted Ms. DeVos’s millions of dollars in political contributions to Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, insisting that they recuse themselves from any vote on her. Her supporters have countered that Democrats who receive money from teachers’ unions should recuse themselves, as well.