Billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos squeaked across the finish line to win Senate confirmation as President Donald Trump’s secretary of education Tuesday, despite massive opposition from the civil rights community, educators, parents, and many in the general public.
Senators deadlocked 50-50 on DeVos’ confirmation, with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joining all 48 of the chamber’s Democrats in voting against her. Vice President Mike Pence made history by casting the first tie-breaker vote to confirm a cabinet official.
It’s an open question whether DeVos can make the transition from highly divisive nominee to effective leader of the U.S. Department of Education.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said during a 24-hour debate preceding the vote that DeVos would enter the department a hobbled education secretary.
“She would start her job with no credibility inside the agency she is supposed to lead,” Murray said. “With no influence in Congress. As the punchline in a late night comedy show—and without the confidence of the American people. A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a secretary of education who is likely to succeed only in further dividing us on education issues.”
But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the only Republicans to speak up on behalf of DeVos during the Democrats’ marathon, said he thinks DeVos can be effective at the department.
“I believe President Trump chose wisely. Not because he chose another education bureaucrat who knows all the acronyms and knows the arcana known to people who have been brought up within that establishment,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. “Instead he chose an outsider. Someone much like himself. But someone more interested in results, rather than paying homage to and feeding the education establishment right here in Washington, D.C. ...
“Yes, Ms. DeVos is going to shake things up a bit,” Cornyn said. “But more importantly, she’s going to be part of this effort to return power to parents and teachers and to our local district.”
The confirmation vote drew swift—and highly polarized—reactions from host of education advocates and groups across the policy spectrum, including school choice supporters, civil rights organizations, the national teachers’ unions, and others.
On the campaign trail, Trump pitched $20 billion to allow students to attend any school their parents choose, including a private school, paid for using existing federal dollars.
The debate over DeVos’ nomination underscores what a tough lift that would be. Even some Republicans who ended up supporting DeVos, such as Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, first extracted promises from her that she would not mandate voucher program or step on local control.
What’s more, the Every Student Succeeds Act has stripped away many of the department’s powers, making the secretary’s bully pulpit all the more important. DeVos had difficulty winning over some Republican lawmakers, especially from rural states where school choice is logistically difficult.
Right up until the moment the Senate approved her nomination, DeVos, whose family has donated tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates and causes, was at the center of a social media firestorm aimed at taking down her nomination.
That intense opposition began to build after an underwhelming confirmation hearing in which DeVos seemed confused about key issues in K-12 policy, including federal special education laws and measuring student performance.
And, in what became a much mocked moment, DeVos also supported allowing states to decide whether guns belong in schools, saying some schools in remote rural areas might need to protect themselves from “potential grizzlies.”
In arguing against DeVos, Democrats also noted, again and again, that she continues to have financial conflicts of interest, stemming from her investments.
“Her conflicts of interest are legion,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. the minority leader.
Democrats also noted that DeVos, who is best known for chairing the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, has no experience working in a public school, and has not been a public school parent or student. That’s a shift from every other previous education secretary.
Senators also reported receiving thousands of calls from constituents alarmed by her nomination, jamming capitol switchboards. And protests sprang up everywhere from Washington, D.C., to Omaha, Neb., to DeVos’ hometown of Holland, Mich.
Working With Groups
DeVos’ nomination not only sparked a nationwide, grassroots social media campaign, it also spurred an avalanche of opposition letters. Hundreds of organizations, including some that had never before taken a position on a cabinet nominee, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote in to question DeVos’ qualifications and positions.
She even garnered opposition from Eli Broad, himself a billionaire philanthropist and charter school champion, as well as Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports candidates who back charters and rigorous accountability.
“People value their schools. Our schools are the heart of our communities,” Murray said Tuesday on the Senate floor, ahead of the vote. “People want the secretary of education to be a champion for their public schools.” But DeVos “has denigrated public schools. She says they need to end.”
To be sure, DeVos has won plaudits from prominent Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (DeVos served on the board of his organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.) And 22 GOP governors endorsed her.
She also earned support from former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent who was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000. And as secretary she could have a sympathetic ear among GOP state lawmakers who see eye-to-eye with her on school choice.
Some of DeVos’ supporters still see a chance for her to work well with educators and parents.
Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which supports vouchers and other forms of choice, suggested DeVos start by convening small groups of teachers, parents, school choice advocates, home school proponents, state chiefs, school board members, and faith-based organizations and listening to what they have to say.
“Yes there’s been a firestorm of people writing and yelling and screaming, but it’s the rank and file parents and teachers that I think that she should spend her first 100 days talking to,” Allen said. “I think by talking to people and sharing what your beliefs are and having a dialogue you breed understanding,” if not necessarily consensus.
But getting the rank and file on board may be a tall order for DeVos.
“I have a fundamental objection, like a deep-in-my-core objection, that somebody who is so grossly unqualified and incompetent is going to be the leader of our nation’s schools,” said Nate Gibbs-Bowling, Washington state’s teacher of the year on a panel sponsored by the Council of Chief School Officers and the Aspen Institute last week. “There are people out there who I may disagree with on every policy matter, but they know what they are talking about, but I can’t say the same thing for her.”
And Ben Lewis, a social studies teacher at Brenham Middle School in Brenham, Texas, who was interviewed when he was in Washington for Trump’s inauguration, said while he’s surrounded by politically conservative teachers, he hadn’t met a single teacher who had said he or she likes DeVos.
For his part, Tony Evers, the state chief in Wisconsin said during last week’s CCSSO panel that he was open to working with DeVos, even as he noted that her apparent lack of knowledge of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “sent chills up the spine of hundreds of special education teachers.”
“Federal government, state government, we have to get along, regardless of who is in that position,” Evers said. Later, when asked if she could be effective as secretary, he said, “Yes, things can turn around, but clearly there has to be a different level of knowledge than what we saw.” He expects DeVos will hire people who can help her fill in the gaps in her own experience and knowledge.
Opposition up to the Last Minute
Even though the opposition to DeVos appeared futile once her nomination cleared procedural hurdles in Senate, activists worked up to the last possible minute to defeat her.
One Utah voter who was unable to get through over the phone sent her senator, Orrin Hatch, a pizza, with an attached note asking him to vote against DeVos, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
And Alyse Galvin, an Anchorage, Alaska, parent who has lobbied the legislature and with parents to improve schools in Alaska, spent her Super Bowl Sunday helping to route over 1,000 calls to GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan, asking him to change his mind and vote against DeVos.
Similar efforts had already worked on Murkowksi, who voted against DeVos. So Galvin was crossing her fingers up until the last possible minute.
“I have a lot of respect for the way that the public system can help every child,” Galvin said. “It’s time for me to pay it back.”
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Jan. 17.
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., accompanied by the committee’s ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. speaks during the committee’s executive session on Jan. 31 to discuss the nomination of Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos.
Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.