She has ties to several education companies, including Social Finance, which started out as a student-loan refinancing company, as well as companies that sell textbooks and promote online education. The companies she’s invested in will be affected by the choices she makes as the head of the department, including decisions about which companies the government contracts with to handle student loans, and how it oversees different sectors, including online or virtual schooling. Democrats and advocacy groups have pushed for assurances that she will put reasonable distance between herself and those companies while she is secretary.
Alexander, who prior to DeVos had perhaps the most contentious confirmation process in the history of the position, is familiar with similar issues, but on a much smaller scale. As the CQ Almanac noted back in 1991, his confirmation was delayed several months after it came to light that he’d earned significant sums without investing much of his own money during his time as the governor of Tennessee and then as president of the University of Tennessee. But, as the paper noted, his worth was only between $2 million and $3 million, much less than the billions that DeVos is worth, even by today’s standards.
Related to tension around DeVos’s web of investments and her ability to untangle herself from them as secretary, she is the first of Trump’s nominees to sit for a confirmation hearing without having reached an agreement with the government’s ethics office about how she’ll resolve any potential conflicts of interest. Several senators, including Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, had voiced concerns about moving forward without a signed agreement. And while Alexander said the committee would not vote on moving DeVos’s confirmation forward without a signed agreement in place, Murray and others pushed back at his refusal to bring DeVos back after the initial hearing for future questioning. (Alexander’s office has pointed out that Paige, who served as Bush’s first education secretary, sat for a hearing before the ethics office was done reviewing his finances, but critics have noted that he was not nearly as wealthy as DeVos.)
And perhaps most significantly, DeVos has less experience with public education than previous nominees. She has not attended or taught at any public schools or universities. Shirley Hufstedler, the country’s first education secretary under Jimmy Carter, was a teacher. Terrel Bell, who succeeded her under Ronald Reagan, worked as a school superintendent in several states, and is sometimes credited with saving the department. (Reagan had vowed to eliminate the department, but Bell helped convince him it was worth saving.) William Bennett, after him, had little experience with public education but served as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, so he was something of a known entity when he was nominated. Lauro Cavazos, who served under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was a professor at Tufts University and Texas Tech University, and Alexander after him also boasted higher-education experience at a public institution. Richard Riley, Bill Clinton’s education secretary, served as governor of South Carolina, where he made education a focus. (DeVos has never held elected office.) Paige worked in higher education and served as a school superintendent in Houston, while Spellings advised Bush on education policy as an assistant to the president before leading the department. Arne Duncan was head of Chicago Public Schools, and John King served as commissioner of education in New York after leading and teaching in public schools.