STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, we begin to get a glimpse of how President-elect Trump's nominee for education secretary wants to change the nation's schools. Betsy DeVos is a wealthy advocate for school choice. She's been praised by mainstream Republicans like Jeb Bush, and she has been criticized by those who fear her push to privatize public education could destroy it. Newly elected Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan is among those who will hear her testimony before a Senate committee, and she's on the line. Senator, welcome to the program.
MAGGIE HASSAN: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: What did you think when you met Betsy DeVos?
HASSAN: Well, look, one of the foundations of our democracy is that all of our children deserve access to quality public education, regardless of their personal circumstances. And after my meeting with Ms. DeVos, I still have serious concerns about whether she will uphold that. She both lacks support for and experience with public education. She never attended a public school. She's also spent an awful lot of her time, energy and money to create a parallel system which has diverted taxpayer dollars to private religious and for-profit schools without any accountability. She is a champion of vouchers, which have largely proven unsuccessful and divert public school dollars. And I have a particular concern as well because vouchers often hurt students who experience disabilities because in order to get the voucher, many of these students have to sign away their legal protection. And there are also accountability issues.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you though, Senator, essentially she's an advocate for school choice, for parents, for families, being able to choose more than one school. President Obama has not favored vouchers for private schools, but he did during his administration increase funding for public charter schools, which is basically school choice. Are the two sides really that far apart here?
HASSAN: I am a proud supporter of public charter schools here in New Hampshire as well. But there is a real difference between public charter schools, which can be established working with local communities and educators to fill a particular need in the public school system and provide more alternatives and more choice for learning styles and families - then a voucher system, which diverts money from the public school system, generally and often doesn't cover the full cost of the private school that the student is attending.
So it doesn't provide access for everybody because only families who could afford the additional money to fill the gap between the voucher and tuition can use it. And what Ms. DeVos has championed often are unaccountable schools. She doesn't want accountability measures, and they're often for-profit schools, which really means that parents and families are often vulnerable in terms of the marketing efforts that some of these schools engage in.
INSKEEP: Senator, having met Betsy DeVos, do you think she'd agree with the statement you just made, she doesn't want accountability measures for private schools?
HASSAN: Well, she has opposed accountability measures in many of the systems that she's championed. And many of these systems don't have accountability measures. And when you look at the history of the system that she's been most involved with in Detroit, it's been a really bad experience both on the voucher side of things and on the public school side of things. You know, even when a child, for instance, gets expelled from one of the private schools under the voucher system, the private school keeps the money. The child is returned to the public school. But there are no dollars there to support that child in that public school setting. So this is the type of thing that really concerns a lot of us.
We should be working together to provide strong neighborhood public schools with public school systems that include public charters so that we can address the learning needs and learning styles of many different students. That's what we focused on in New Hampshire with also strong accountability to make sure that taxpayers and families and students, most importantly, are getting the kind of education they deserve...
INSKEEP: Senator, we've just got...
HASSAN: ...And that will prepare them for the 21st century.
INSKEEP: Senator, we've just got a few seconds here. Are you a no vote then already on Betsy DeVos?
HASSAN: I'm going to listen carefully to what she says this afternoon in our hearing and see if she can address those concerns.
INSKEEP: OK. Senator, thanks very much, appreciate it.
HASSAN: Thank you very much. Take care.
INSKEEP: Maggie Hassan is a newly inaugurated United States senator from New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.