Wealthy Republican donor Betsy DeVos said she would take a salary of just $1 if she is confirmed as education secretary

Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary has been challenged over guns in schools – and immediately responded that staff may need weapons to repel grizzly bears. 

Betsy DeVos faced a tough grilling from Democrats at a committee hearing, in which she was asked whether she landed the position because she had been a major donor.

During the hearing DeVos, who said she would take a salary of just $1 if she is appointed, was asked by Sen Chris Murphy: ‘You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?’

She responded by citing a school in Wyoming that had to ward off bears, and said that there ‘is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies’.

But she continued: ‘If the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.’

In the lengthy and often fraught hearing in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, DeVos also revealed that if unwanted kissing and groping – like the behavior Donald Trump once bragged about – happened in a school, she would consider it sexual assault.

DeVos was grilled by Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

Sen Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked DeVos outright if she would have landed the job had it not been for her family’s political contributions

DeVos said she would address ‘the needs of all parents and students’ but that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work in education. 

Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked DeVos outright if she would have landed the job had it not been for her family’s political contributions.

‘As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility,’ she responded. ‘I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years.’

Mrs DeVos told the committee she would address ‘the needs of all parents and students’ but that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work in education

Sen Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, said she was ‘extremely disappointed’ that DeVos had not finalized her financial and ethics disclosures ahead of the hearing. 

She also raised concerns about conflicts of interest, with DeVos’ family business enterprises including a student loan refinancing company.

‘Where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved. I will not be conflicted. Period,’ DeVos said.

Sen Elizabeth Warren (pictured, right) raised concerns about DeVos’ business interests, which include a student loan refinancing company

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, a former education secretary, expressed confidence that DeVos is an ‘excellent’ choice for the job.

‘She is on the side of our children,’ he said.

DeVos sidestepped a question about whether she would rein in the department’s Office for Civil Rights’ work to protect students from campus sexual assault. DeVos said she would ‘be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled and with great sensitivity to those who are victims’.

Sen Bernie Sanders asked DeVos about tuition-free public colleges and universities

Committee members (left-to-right) Sen Maggie Hassan, Sen Tim Kaine, Sen Elizabeth Warren, Sen Chris Murphy and Sen Tammy Baldwin asked questions of Donald Trump’s education secretary pick

Murray asked whether unwanted kissing and groping, like the behavior Donald Trump once bragged about, happened in a school, it would be classed as sexual assault? DeVos said yes.

Asked by Sanders about her views on tuition-free public colleges and universities, DeVos said: ‘I think we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that is truly free. Somebody is going to pay for it.’

DEVOS DISTANCES HERSELF FROM ‘GAY CONVERSION THERAPY’

LGBT groups have protested Trump’s choice of DeVos, saying she has funded conservative religious groups that promote what they consider to be traditional family values, including one organization that supports conversion therapy — counseling of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.

DeVos told the hearing last night that she never supported the idea and that ‘believes in the innate value of every single human being’.

Amid concerns that DeVos’ conservative religious views might make her a poor advocate for the rights of the LGBT community and other minorities, DeVos stressed that no students should face discrimination. 

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander read into the record a letter of support from the Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican organization pushing for LGBT rights.  

She skirted Sanders’ question on whether she would support making child care free or much more affordable for low-income families, as is the case in many countries around the world, saying only that she feels strongly about ‘parents having an opportunity for child care for their children’.

‘But it’s not a question of opportunity,’ Sanders fired back, raising his voice. ‘It’s a question of being able to afford it!’

Facing criticism from teachers unions that she is working against public education, DeVos told the committee that she will be ‘a strong advocate for great public schools’.

‘But,’ she added, ‘if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.’

DeVos, 59, said she will seek to address rising higher education costs and massive student debt, but also advance trade and vocational schools as well as community colleges because ‘craftsmanship is not a fallback — but a noble pursuit’.

DeVos, the wife of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune, has spent more than two decades advocating for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, as well as promoting conservative religious values.

In a letter addressed to the committee, 38 prominent education groups and teachers’ organizations expressed concern that DeVos’ track record bodes ill for public education.

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos talks to Sen Tim Scott before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing

‘Over the course of her career as a major campaign contributor, soft-money donor and lobbyist, DeVos has used her considerable wealth to influence legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students,’ the letter said.

DeVos supporters, meanwhile, applauded her nomination. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, said that American public education ‘is in deep crisis’, with 35 countries outranking American schools in math and 20 in reading.

‘I believe Betsy DeVos has the talent, commitment and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools and deliver the promise of opportunity that excellent education provides, and I support her nomination as U.S. secretary of education,’ Moskowitz said in a statement.

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 block the nomination with a filibuster on the Senate floor. 

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