Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders conceded that taxpayer-funded college education actually costs money after an exchange with education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos on Tuesday.
Sanders (I., Vt.), who campaigned on creating free public college education in his close primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, asked DeVos whether she would support the push for cost-free secondary education.
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"Will you work with me and others to make public colleges and universities tuition free through federal and state efforts," Sanders asked.
DeVos called it "a really interesting idea" to consider before expressing her doubt about the feasibility of such a policy.
"We also have to consider the fact there's nothing in life that's truly free. Somebody's going to pay for it," she said.
"Ooooh yes, you're right. You're right. Somebody will pay for it," Sanders replied.
Sanders also grilled DeVos about whether she was qualified for the post. The senator, who has received more than $140,000 from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, questioned whether her family's political donations played a role in the nomination.
"I don't mean to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has [sic] not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?" Sanders asked.
"As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years," she said.
DeVos is the chairman of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the nation’s largest school choice advocacy group. AFC boardmember and 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman introduced DeVos to the committee and hailed her work for achieving "bipartisan support" at the state level. Devos and her husband also created the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school in Grand Rapids, in 2011. The school is now Michigan's 69th best school out of about 900 publicly-funded schools, according to U.S. News & World Report.
DeVos was asked by the committee's Democrats about accountability standards in charter schools, as well as whether school choice would divert money from failing schools.
"I have major concerns with how you spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools," Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) said in her opening statement. She went on to ask DeVos whether she would commit to "not cut a single penny" from existing public schools, characterizing school choice programs as "privatization."
DeVos defended charter schools and her advocacy as refocusing education on students, rather than protecting institutions.
"Not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. I am hopeful that we can work together to find common ground to solve those issues and empower parents," she said.
Murray's questions echoed the sentiments of the NEA and AFT, the nation's largest teachers unions with 4.5 million members. Each labor group opposes DeVos and school choice, which they characterize as privatization. Murray has received $129,000 from those unions, making her the third largest recipient of union cash behind Sen. Sanders and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.). The 11 Democrats on the committee have received nearly $740,000 from those unions.
Democrats focused many of the questions on her family wealth and the potential for conflicts of interest due to her family's investments in charter and online school chains and programs. She said that she would divest from those investments, later adding that she would only accept a $1 salary for the position.
Sen. Christopher Murphy (D., Conn.) asked DeVos whether she supported allowing guns in schools. The question tripped up the nominee. She said she would back President-elect Donald Trump's plan to ban gun-free school zones, pointing out that guns could be kept on premises to eliminate the threat of grizzly bears before addressing school shootings.
"Please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence," she said.
"I look forward to you coming to Connecticut and talking about the role of guns in schools," Murphy said in reference to the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 27 elementary students and teachers dead.
DeVos received endorsements from the committee's Republicans, who hailed her record. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who served as education secretary under George H.W. Bush, said that the public desires education reforms, adding that Democratic attacks were outside of "the mainstream."
"Betsy DeVos is on our children's side," he said. "I believe she's on the mainstream of public opinion and her critics are not."