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Republican Sen. Lankford Supports Trump's Education Secretary Nominee


The Senate votes at noon today on Betsy DeVos, President Trump's choice for education secretary. Some lawmakers may be yawning as they vote, since Democrats demanded a full debate on her nomination. And so the Senate was in session all last night. Right now the vote is said to be tied, 50 for, 50 against, meaning Vice President Pence could be needed to break that tie. Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, is one of the yes votes. He's on the line. Senator, good morning.

JAMES LANKFORD: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: Other cabinet nominees, of course, have been criticized, but they've been confirmed relatively easily. Why has DeVos raised so many concerns, including among some of your Republican colleagues?

LANKFORD: Betsy DeVos is a non-typical selection for a cabinet official for education. She comes from an education passion, education background. She's worked with kids in inner cities. She's worked with kids in rural areas to try to develop if a school is not functioning and is not going well, how can we provide other alternatives? Those alternatives may be private schools, they may be public charter schools. But she's worked very hard on alternative options for that.

INSKEEP: Yeah, she's all about school choice. But that's one of the reasons, it seems, that a couple of Republicans have turned against her. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine have said school choice sounds great but doesn't necessarily work in rural areas where you don't have a lot of school choices available. And they've said she doesn't have the experience to improve the public schools. What's wrong with their critique?

LANKFORD: Yeah, their critique assumes that you have to go into - or that the secretary of education would go into each state and each district and force them to take on public charter schools or offer private schools in rural or urban areas. The goal and the function of the secretary of education is not to compel any state to be able to do education the way that the national leader wants to do it but to assist local areas and states to be able to do education as they choose to. If you go back to two years ago, the Senate and the House and the president all agreed to get rid of No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind was a National School Board function where the secretary of education had the responsibility to go into each district and to compel them to do it a certain way. Now we're under a completely different structure, something called Every Student Succeeds, that we passed two years ago. That changes the role of the secretary of education. Teachers and administrators no longer work for Washington. They work for their local states.

INSKEEP: But with that said, couple of things, Senator, does she then have the experience to help improve public schools in rural areas where a lot of people voted for President Trump?

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, as I mentioned before, because she does not have a public school background.

INSKEEP: Has she cleared up conflicts of interest to your satisfaction? We have to mention the Office of Government Ethics said she's divesting from a lot of companies. She's very wealthy. But keeping an interest in a company that says it helps students with ADHD and also that she hasn't disclosed anything about some of her family's trusts, are you satisfied she's done enough?

LANKFORD: Yes, she has to the Office of Ethics - she has cleared everything up. And this is very typical for everyone that comes in that has any kind of wealth or any kind of background. The Office of Ethics has to walk through and to make sure everything has been cleared. But that is an important part of any nominee that's there. So, yes, she has.

INSKEEP: Senator, how will America's schools be different in a few years if Betsy DeVos is confirmed today?

LANKFORD: I don't think we know at this point because that will be up to the states and to the local leaders to be able to determine that. Again, it's not up to the secretary of education to be able to drive that. That is up to state and local leaders to be able to say what is the best option for the kids in our area?

INSKEEP: How will she influence things though?

LANKFORD: She'll influence things by answering questions before individuals. That is the goal of the secretary of education is to help facilitate conversation nationwide on how do we improve our schools but not to go in and to mandate for any state, any local, whether it be urban or rural district, to be compelled to do education a certain way.

INSKEEP: You see her job as to listen and to learn?

LANKFORD: It is - well, it is to listen, to learn and to be able to prove that she can do the task. The responsibility is on her to be able to step in and to be able to take the lead in the things that need to be done to be able to improve our education. But that starts by listening.

INSKEEP: Senator Lankford, it's been a pleasure listening to you. Thank you.

LANKFORD: You bet.

INSKEEP: James Lankford of Oklahoma this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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