New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan (D.) joined the ranks of Senate Democrats attacking Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, despite her own support for charter schools as governor.
Hassan met with DeVos, the billionaire philanthropist and education reformer tapped by President-elect Trump to lead the Department of Education, on Monday. The freshman senator issued a public statement expressing her reservations about DeVos given her support for school choice.
"I remain very concerned about both her lack of support for and experience with public education," Hassan said in a statement. "I also have great concerns about her support for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools without accountability requirements, which would weaken investments in public education."
Hassan has not always been so "concerned" about private schools.
Hassan proposed an increase to New Hampshire's charter school budget as governor in 2013, asking the legislature for $42 million compared to $24 million spent in 2012. When that failed, she toured New Hampshire's first public charter school to tout her plan to open and tax a casino, which she said would be used to expand the charter school system. She heaped praise on charter schools, saying that they could help improve the public school system.
"Ultimately, the idea of charter schools is they're like laboratories and that what you learn from best practices in charter schools you integrate back into all public schools so that eventually what you should have is a public school system that is addressing different learning styles right there in one school," Hassan said.
Hassan's office did not return requests for comment about the nomination or whether the senator still supports charter schools.
DeVos is chairman of the American Federation for Children, the nation’s largest school choice advocacy group, and cofounded with her husband Dick a charter school in 2011. The West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids has quickly risen to become one of the top performing schools in the state with a student body that is nearly 40 percent of students classified as economically disadvantaged. US News & World Report ranked the academy the 69th best school in Michigan, which had about 900 public and charter schools in 2016, and named it one of the 1,800 best schools in the country.
Hassan's criticism came the same day that Democrats attacked DeVos for donating to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The nonprofit organization advocates for free speech and civil liberties on campus and has sued the Obama administration for violating due process rights of students accused of sexual assault by lowering the burden of proof.
"Ms. DeVos must fully explain whether she supports the radical view that it should be more difficult for campus sexual assault victims to receive justice,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) told Politico.
FIRE responded to the story and its resulting criticism in a blog post, saying that DeVos' opponents had mischaracterized the suit and its aims.
"Following Betsy DeVos’ nomination for Secretary of Education, some have suggested that this support for FIRE’s work in defense of campus rights is troubling. This is disappointing. Protecting civil liberties on campus is not, and must not become, a partisan issue," the group said. "Outside of the campus context, nobody would argue that reducing due process protections, including the burden of proof, is necessary to secure a just outcome."
While Sen. Hassan lauded public schools in her press release, she had sent her own daughter to Phillips Exeter Academy where her husband Tom served as headmaster from 2009 to 2015. Parents pay up to $48,000 per year in tuition. Tom Hassan earned a salary of more than $300,000 each year.
In 2011, a longtime teacher confessed to school leadership that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with a student. Tom Hassan's administration allowed the man to retire without notifying students, faculty, or alumni about the abuse. The man was later named to Maggie Hassan's gubernatorial campaign committee, though Hassan has claimed she had no knowledge of the misconduct.
Tom Hassan was censured by the Association of Boarding Schools for his handling of the misconduct.
New Hampshire GOP Chairman Jennifer Horn called Hassan's flip-flop on charter schools hypocritical. She said that DeVos will help provide students in struggling schools with "access to high quality education" with her education reforms.
"Senator Maggie Hassan has been privileged to have the financial resources and connections through her husband to educate her daughter at an elite private school," Horn said. "It is extremely hypocritical for Senator Hassan to criticize Ms. DeVos’s support for commonsense polices that will give all students, regardless of personal circumstances, access to a high-quality education"
Senate Republicans support DeVos' nomination. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who served as education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, met with DeVos on Tuesday. He said in a release following the meeting that he remains "fully confident that she will be swiftly confirmed by the full Senate." A spokesman dismissed Democratic attacks on her record, saying that her activism is "mainstream" and in line with other education reformers.
"Sen. Alexander believes Betsy DeVos will be a superb secretary of education and will work tirelessly to ensure every child has access to a high quality education," the spokesman said in a statement. "Mrs. DeVos’ support for charter schools and giving low-income parents the kinds of school choice that wealthier parents have is in the mainstream of those who want better public schools."
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold DeVos' confirmation hearing on Jan. 17.