Senate Democrats mounted a marathon debate over the past 24 hours, decrying the nomination of billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education, ahead of a vote on her nomination, expected Tuesday.
DeVos is poised to be approved by the Senate by the skin of her teeth, amid massive opposition from Senate Democrats, educators, civil rights groups, and many in the general public.
Two moderate Republican lawmakers from rural states, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they would join all 48 Democrats in the chamber to defeat her. Vice President Mike Pence was set to cast the tie-breaking to put DeVos over the finish line, marking the first time in history for a vice president to put a cabinet nominee over the top.
Democrats—who stayed up through the night debating DeVos’ nomination—made it clear that they weren’t ready to give up the fight.
“Democrats will hold the floor for the next 24 hours, until the final vote, to do everything we can to persuade just one more Republican to join us,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee Monday. “And I strongly encourage people across the country to join us—to double down on your advocacy—and to keep making your voices heard for these last 24 hours.”
In speech after speech on the Senate floor, Democrats referenced the hundreds of thousands of constituent calls asking lawmakers to reject DeVos’ nomination, including, they said, from voters who had backed President Donald Trump in the election, but were put off by DeVos’ apparent lack of knowledge and support for public schools. Educators and others were angered that DeVos didn’t appear to realize that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law and applies to all students. She also said that schools might need guns to protect from “potential grizzlies.”
And they worried about DeVos’ and Trump’s prescription for public schools: A sweeping $20 billion voucher program, paid for by diverting unspecified federal funds to school choice, including private schools.
“It’s hard to imagine a worse choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Monday. “She thinks she knows what’s best for everybody else’s children even though she has no experience with public schools.”
And Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said DeVos’ embrace of charter schools without robust accountability in her state has siphoned resources from public schools.
DeVos has pushed policies “that have hurt our children and put their futures at risk,” Stabenow said.
Democrats far outnumbered Republicans in speaking out against DeVos’ nomination Monday.
However, Trump weighed in Tuesday morning on Twitter to express confidence that DeVos would be confirmed, and that Democrats were only protecting unsuccessful policies:
Senate Dems protest to keep the failed status quo. Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!
— President Trump (@POTUS) February 7, 2017
And GOP senators who defended DeVos painted her as an outsider who could give the K-12 system a badly needed shakeup.
“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. But more importantly, she’s going to be part of this effort to return power to parents and teachers and to our local district.”
For now it appears that 50 Republicans plan to support DeVos. She has called all 50 senators to make sure that their votes were secure, according to CNN.
But big questions loom about whether she would actually be able to move her agenda upon taking the reins of the department.
“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 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.”
It’s not clear that DeVos would have much firepower with senators on her own side of the aisle. Republican senators Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Jerry Moran of Kansas personally extracted promises from DeVos that she would not mandate vouchers and would respect local and state and control before agreeing to vote for her.
Republicans, though, think DeVos will be bring a breath of fresh air to the department.
“I think a lot of the controversy we’ve had was simply leftover from the last election,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman after the education committee voted to move DeVos’ nomination to the full Senate. “I think nobody should be surprised to have an education secretary who favors public charter schools, who tries to get low-income children a better choice. I expect her to assemble an experienced team of people once she’s confirmed.”
But he didn’t name school choice—DeVos’ signature issue—as the committee’s first order of business.
“Our major focus over the next year will be on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act,” Alexander said.
Last Ditch Demonstration
In advance of the vote, a group of parents, teachers, and activists held a demonstration near the Capitol. In recent weeks similar protests have taken place in Tennessee, Los Angeles, and even DeVos’ hometown of Holland, Mich.
Molly O’Brien, a special education teacher in Maryland’s Montgomery County public schools, said she doesn’t think DeVos will be able to win over educators if she takes the helm of the department.
“We don’t trust her,” O’Brien said. “She does not believe in teachers or public education.” O’Brien, who brought her daughter and father along to the protest, hadn’t been to a protest before Trump’s election, but now considers herself an activist.
And Britta Copt, a PTA president from Golden, Colo., said she doesn’t think DeVos, who attended private schools and sent her own children to them, has any real understanding of the public education system.
“Betsy DeVos has no clue. She would be devastating for public education,” Copt said.
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