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Is There an Upside for Democrats in DeVos as GOP’s Face of K-12 Policy?

By Alyson Klein — February 09, 2017 5 min read
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Democrats could spend a lot of time fighting brand-new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her initiatives over the next few years, especially if she tries to make good on the $20 billion voucher initiative President Donald Trump pitched on the campaign trail. But her time in the spotlight also has a big potential upside for them.

For one thing, it could energize Democrats and those who support their vision to open their wallets and pound the pavement for local, state, and federal Democratic candidates.

And that energy would serve Democrats best where they may need it most right now: in rural, red states with Democratic senators that are up for re-election in 2018. Democrats have 25 seat to protect in the mid-term election, including 10 in states that President Donald Trump won, including Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

DeVos’ favorite K-12 policy—vouchers—won’t do much good in those states, where students have transportation challenges just getting to regular public schools. (More on that issue here.)

And the vulnerable senators—all of whom joined their Democratic colleagues in voting against DeVos Tuesday—were more than happy to point that out, setting up the DeVos nomination as an example of Trump betraying his most-loyal voters.

“The reddest part of my state are parts of my state where there are no private schools. Rural Missouri,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Tuesday as the Senate was wrapping up debate on DeVos. “In rural areas of this country, there are not private schools for parents and kids to choose. They would have to drive miles.”

Republicans, McCaskill said, “are kicking in the shins the very voters that put them in power. And I don’t get that. I don’t understand how you can give the back of your hand to rural America with this decision.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., made a similar pitch in this post on Medium, and said on Twitter that she had gotten nearly 3,000 anti-DeVos calls, including many questioning her qualifications, not just her positions.

And in this tweet, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., another likely 2018 GOP target, cited DeVos’ lack of knowledge of education policy—and especially rural schools—as a reason he voted against her.

Both Heitkamp and Manchin were the target of ads by two conservative nonprofit groups, the Club for Growth and America Next, urging voters to persaude them to vote for DeVos.

And to be sure, DeVos has offered up virtual charter schools as a solution for families in isolated areas that want to take advantage of school choice. But many rural areas don’t have the broadband capability to make that work. And virtual charter schools have been plagued by uneven—and often, dismal—academic performance, as an investigation by Education Week found.

Notably, the two Republicans who ultimately opposed DeVos—Sens. Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska,—are both from rural states and have faced contested elections.

And on the national level, opinion polling doesn’t show vouchers as a big winner, especially among Republican voters. In fact, vouchers have slipped in popularity, even as more states have embraced choice.

Less than half of Americans are fans of the policy, according to an August 2016 opinion poll by Education Next, a journal published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Forty-three percent of the 4,181 survey participants—which constituted a nationally representative sample—said they support the idea of vouchers, down from 55 percent four years ago.

And vouchers for low-income students were more popular among Democrats than Republicans, the poll found: 49 percent compared to 37 percent. (More here in this great explainer by my colleague Arianna Prothero.)

Jack Jennings, who spent three decades working for Democrats on Capitol Hill, sees DeVos as a policy minus, but a potential political plus for his party.

“The main advantage for the Democrats is that it clearly identifies the Republicans nationally as committed to privatizing public education,” Jennings said. That won’t sit well with suburban parents whose kids go to public schools, a key voting block for the GOP. “Democrats can tell those parents that the Republicans are only interested in charter schools, of which there are not a lot in suburbia, and private schools, of which there are not a lot anywhere. Even Catholic schools in the cities are declining.”

But David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a Washington polling firm that works with GOP candidates, noted that Trump’s win is evidence that voters might be ready to take a chance on something different.

“The electorate is willing to take some risks to change the status quo because they feel that it isn’t working, and that’s going to play in her favor,” he said of DeVos. But she will have to show that her policies are actually improving student outcomes. “You need results,” he said.

Democrats though, already appear to think they may hold the winning cards on the DeVos debate when it comes to mobilizing the grassroots activists, if nothing else.

Even before the education secretary won Senate confirmation, a campaign to re-elect Wisconsin’s Sen. Tammy Baldwin, another of the 10 Democratic senators facing re-election in 2018 in a state Trump won, sent out a fundraising email, asking for $5 or $10 donations to help “strengthen our opposition” to DeVos, a billionaire school choice advocate who many saw as unqualified for the role after her uneven confirmation hearing.

And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent around an email asking voters to sign a petition and “take a stand against” DeVos. The email promised the petition would be delivered to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader.

The DCCC is the House campaign arm, which means it—and House members—couldn’t have done much to stop DeVos from getting confirmed. But the petition could help the DCCC identify potential grassroots activists and even donors.

Vice President Mike Pence swears in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Tuesday, as DeVos’ husband, Dick DeVos, watches. --Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Vice President Mike Pence casts the tiebreaking vote on Tuesday as the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

--Senate Television via AP

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