February 7, 2017; Washington Post
To take her place at President Trump’s Cabinet table and become the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos needed an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by Vice President Michael Pence. After her difficult appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee—one that raised more questions about her qualifications than it answered—and weeks of effort by those who opposed her nomination, her opponents failed to find a third Republican senator willing to join Senate Democrats in opposition. When VP Pence cast the 51st yea vote, Ms. DeVos had made it.
DeVos responded to her confirmation by tweeting:
I appreciate the Senate’s diligence & am honored to serve as @usedgov Secretary. Let’s improve options & outcomes for all US students.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVos) February 7, 2017
Predictably, the glass looked much less full when viewed from the Democratic side of the aisle. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader, tweeted:
Today @VP Mike Pence did something no one else has ever done: cast the tie breaking vote on his own cabinet nominee. #RiggedCabinet
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) February 7, 2017
And the always-outspoken Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) released the following statement:
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One of the most important jobs in our government is the Secretary of Education, who directly oversees the policies that children, teachers, school administrators, and entire communities depend on…It’s not a job for amateurs who don’t know the first thing about education. I voted against the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor, because she is the most incompetent cabinet-level nominee I have ever seen. Last night, I urged my Republican colleagues to oppose her nomination, because if we cannot set party loyalty aside long enough to perform the essential duty of vetting the President’s nominees, then I don’t know what we are even doing here. Betsy DeVos has demonstrated that she is fundamentally unqualified to lead the Education Department, and it’s a shame that Republicans voted to confirm one of their major donors instead of looking out for our children.
While DeVos did not have much name recognition prior to her nomination, she was well known within the Republican Party as a major donor and supporter of conservative causes. She also had become a powerful advocate for market-based school reform efforts, personally advocating for school vouchers and the right of parents to transfer public funds to private schools, including religiously affiliated programs.
Once nominated, it became clear that she was passionate about her vision of a privatized public education system but not so knowledgeable about the workings of K-12 education, higher education, technical education, and the other issues under the purview of the Department of Education she will now lead. She reaffirmed her belief that private schools need not meet the same level of accountability as traditional public schools. Despite limiting the formal questioning during her one appearance before the HELP Committee, her Republican supporters had not been able to keep her from showing how little inexperience she will bring to her new job and her lack of knowledge about public education. Her written responses to follow-up questions did little to improve her image.
Her nomination energized public school supporters who opposed the drive toward privatization that they believed she, and President Trump, were ready to push forward on aggressively, including a proposal to shift $20 billion in federal education funding to vouchers. Former Secretary of Education John King, Jr., summarized how her opponents evaluated her for the Washington Post.
Across the country parents, teachers, community leaders and civil rights advocates are rightly insisting that the federal role in education should be to strengthen public education, not abandon it, and to protect students’ civil rights including students with disabilities, low-income students, students of color, LGBT students, and immigrant students.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), during the final Senate debate leading up to the confirmation vote, asked if she was “a knowledgeable candidate who understands the federal law.”
Is this a candidate who comes to us without conflicts of interest? Is this a candidate who is willing to stand up and be the defender of all young children in the schools? To me, and I think to many of my colleagues who have been out here speaking, she is not.
And now that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education, will she be able to lead after such a bruising process? Senator Murray thinks it will be difficult: “She would start this job with no credibility inside the agency she is supposed to lead, with no influence in Congress. As the punchline in late-night comedy shows—and without the confidence of the American people.”
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the HELP Committee, sees less difficulty for DeVos. “For the last eight years, I worked well with President Obama’s Education, Health and Energy secretaries, and the president himself, even though we had fundamental disagreements on the federal role in education, Obamacare and energy policy.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that protested the nomination, told the New York Times “the public would now have to serve as a check and balance to her policies and be fierce fighters on behalf of children.” Now, as the Trump-DeVos education agenda unfolds, we will see how effective they will be.—Martin Levine