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Sen. Franken Has Heated Exchange With Education Pick Betsy DeVos

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary was on Capitol Hill Tuesday, facing tough questions from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

One of the members on that committee, Sen. Al Franken, confronted the billionaire Betsy DeVos on numerous issues, including the problem of student debt in America.

"In terms of throwing numbers around, you say that student debt has increased 1000 percent?" Franken asked Devos.

"980 percent in 8 years. That's almost 1,000," she replied.

"It's increased 118 percent in the past 8 years. So, I'm just asking if you're challenging my figures, I would ask that you get your figures straight on education policy," Franken replied. "That's why we want more questions, because we want to know if this person (DeVos) that we are entrusting, may entrust to be the Secretary of Education, if she has the breadth and depth of knowledge that we would expect from someone who has that important job."

Another heated exchange came when Franken asked DeVos for her views on the relative advantage of doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth.

"I think if I'm understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they're making in each subject area," DeVos replied.

"Well, that's growth. That's not proficiency," Franken quickly replied. "So, in another words, the growth they are making isn't growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard."

"Proficiency is when they reach a third grade-level of reading, etc." DeVos said.

Franken went on to say that he was just trying to get her thoughts on the debate between proficiency and growth.

"This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years," Franken continued. "And I've advocated growth as the chairman, and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency and ignore the kids on the bottom, who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency. I've been an advocate of growth. So, it surprises me that you don't know this issue."

Franken also said DeVos' family has been involved in anti-LGBT causes, including donating millions to groups that push "conversion therapy", which is the practice of trying to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity.

"DeVos, conversion therapy has been widely discredited and rejected for decades by every mainstream medical and mental health organization as neither medically or ethically appropriate. It has been shown to lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide—particularly in LGBT youth," Franken said. "Ms. DeVos, do you still believe in conversion therapy?"

"Sen. Franken, I've never believed in that," DeVos replied. "First of all, let me say I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being. And that all students regardless of age should be able to attend a school and feel safe and feel free of discrimination."

DeVos continued, saying Franken's characterization of the contributions don't accurately reflect those of her family.

On Facebook, Franken posted Tuesday night that he was "deeply troubled by the fact that she seemed unfamiliar with some of the most basic issues in education today."

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During the confirmation hearing, DeVos also sparked outrage among Democrats and many on social media when she cited the threat posed by grizzly bears in her response to a question about guns in schools.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who has pushed for stricter gun regulation since Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state, asked DeVos during the hearing if she supported guns in schools.

"I think that is best left to locales and states to decide," she said. "If the underlying question is..."

Murphy, a Democrat, interrupts by asking, "You can't say definitively today that guns shouldn't be in schools?"

"Well, well I would refer back to Senator Enzi and the school he was referring to in Wapiti, Wyoming, and that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies," she said.

Murphy later tweeted that he was "shaken to the core" by her answer.

DeVos, 59, also 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.

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