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Sen. Wyden Says He'll Vote Against Trump's Education Pick

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And the Senate votes at noon today on Betsy DeVos, President Trump's choice for education secretary. And of all the president's nominees, she is the one closest to being defeated. The vote count is believed to be 50-50 in the Senate, meaning that Vice President Pence would be needed to break a tie. One of the definite no votes is Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. Senator, good morning. Welcome to the program.

RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: I want to understand the basic objection here. I understand that Betsy DeVos has no experience in schools. She's been a wealthy advocate for school choice. But the president has made some choices that are described as disruptive. He says that's what people voted for, his supporters anyway. What's wrong with that?

WYDEN: Let me give you an example of my concern because I'm interested in having fresh faces. We've got to have policies that work. For example, in my home state in Oregon - I was home having community meetings this weekend - we're very concerned about improving high school graduation rates. Improving high school graduation rates can't be built on a foundation of alternative facts, yet this is much of what Betsy DeVos is promoting.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by that, senator?

WYDEN: Well, for example, she recently told the Senate that graduation rates at several private schools which she's invested in were almost twice as high as the actual graduation rates at those schools. And I just see this as an alternative fact. And some, I think, are more inclined to say it's a four-Pinocchio falsehood, an ideological hocus-pocus.

INSKEEP: I guess when you say alternative fact, we should mention you're using a phrase that was offered up by Kellyanne Conway, a presidential adviser, to explain some false statements. But she has been involved in education for many years and is an advocate for choice, which Democrats have supported in certain forms, maybe not a big fan of private schools but certainly of charter schools. Could she do some good in there?

WYDEN: What we need to do is focus on results and what works. What I heard again this weekend is in Oregon, where we're really zeroing in on this question, we brought together parents and teachers and community leaders. And, for example, in the new education law that Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander worked on - it was bipartisan, the Every Student Succeeds Act - I wrote a provision that I think is going to give us a chance to try approaches that actually work, for example, mentoring kinds of programs, after school programs, summer programs. That's what this debate is all about, is - are we going to get results? Are we going to try and focus on approaches that actually work on key issues like getting graduation rates up? We did that - Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray, I and other senators - in a bipartisan way. I just don't see that in Betsy DeVos' record.

INSKEEP: I want to mention that we heard in today's program also, we're hearing from Jim Lankford, a Republican senator of Oklahoma who's voting yes on Betsy DeVos. And he cast her unconventional background as a strength. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES LANKFORD: She has the experience to be able to step in and be able to help administrators. And that's the goal is that those states and local leaders would help their own schools, not the secretary of education. And she is a nontraditional option there because she does not have a public school background.

INSKEEP: Lankford says that doesn't matter because her job is not going to be to be the principal of a public school, it's to be a resource, to be helpful. Senator?

WYDEN: Would you like me to respond to that?

INSKEEP: Sure.

WYDEN: The point again is fresh faces, unconventional. That really, I guess, defines, you know, my career. Still comes down to are you zeroing in on approaches at work? For example, she has tried approaches in Detroit. She spent years advocating for a voucher system that took scarce taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools. And her efforts have essentially left public schools in a position to not secure the funds that they desperately need. So what this comes down to is not are people like me hostile to fresh faces and unconventional approaches, we're focused on the kinds of ideas that we got into the bipartisan law to improve graduation rates. That's what Oregonians care about and not ideological hocus-pocus.

INSKEEP: Senator Wyden, just a few seconds left. Obviously you're involved in fighting a lot of the president's nominees. You're on the Finance Committee, which is going to be voting on the nominee for Health and Human Services Tom Price, Steven Mnuchin at the Treasury Department. Bottom line assessment in about 20 seconds or so, what have Democrats gained from fighting so hard on so many nominees?

WYDEN: What Democrats are doing is making sure the American people understand what's at stake here. These nominations involve individuals who may get positions that could spend billions and billions of dollars, enforce centuries of law. We want to again find the problem solvers, the practical people that actually produce results and not...

INSKEEP: Senator.

WYDEN: ...People who are looking for ideological trophies.

INSKEEP: Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, thanks.

WYDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.