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Betsy DeVos confirmed as education secretary after historic tie-breaking vote from VP, unrelenting opposition

Carolyn Phenicie | February 7, 2017

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Vice President Mike Pence walks through the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol after casting the tie breaking vote on the confirmation of Betsy Devos to be Secretary of Education. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

Vice President Mike Pence walks through the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol after casting the tie breaking vote on the confirmation of Betsy Devos to be secretary of education. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

Betsy DeVos is, after weeks of public outcry, marathon Senate speeches and the narrowest and sharpest of partisan vote margins, the eleventh U.S. secretary of education.

In a pro-forma and decidedly undramatic endnote, Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking “aye” to confirm DeVos, 51-50 at 12:30 p.m., marking the first time ever a vice president intervened in a cabinet appointment vote. As had been expected for about a week, Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joined the chamber’s 48 Democrats in voting against DeVos, leaving Pence to shore up the remaining 50 GOP senators and seal the nomination.

Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, HELP committee, will spend the next several years as DeVos’s chief antagonist. Murkowski and Collins are also members of the HELP panel, meaning DeVos will now report to a committee where the majority voted against her confirmation.

It is clear that people across the country and Democrats and Republicans here in the Senate believe that we should work together to strengthen public education, not privatize or defund it. So I am hopeful that (DeVos) enters her new role taking this to heart, and ready to adjust her views,”  Murray said in a statement following the vote.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the HELP committee and was charged with shepherding DeVos’s nomination, issued a much shorter statement, reiterating several points he had made throughout the bruising confirmation battle.

I championed Betsy DeVos because she will implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind the way Congress wrote it: to reverse the trend toward a national school board and restore local control of … public schools. Under her leadership, there will be no Washington mandates for Common Core, for teacher evaluation, or for vouchers,” he said, praising her work for charter schools and providing more options for low-income children.

DeVos’s nomination attracted a tsunami of opposition phone calls, emails and rallies, becoming the unlikely focal point for the congressional showdown over President Trump’s controversial cabinet picks. But neither the concerted public opinion campaign nor the 24-hour talk-a-thon by Senate Democrats leading up to Tuesday’s vote, was enough to sway a third Republican or change the end result.

Critics said DeVos lacked crucial policy understanding, was unfamiliar with the public schools as either an educator, parent or student and that her deep support for school choice, particularly vouchers, would gut public education. The billionaire Michigan philanthropist and major GOP donor was also scrutinized for her extensive business dealings and investments, which Democrats and advocates said raised potential conflicts of interest.

“A vote for Ms. DeVos is a vote to destroy our public school system,” New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall said.

Supporters said DeVos has spent 30 years advocating for better educational choices for children, particularly disadvantaged ones whose district schools were failing, and that she was vilified by teachers unions and their supporters in Congress because any school choice was seen by them as a threat.

Ed Patru, spokesman for the group Friends of Betsy DeVos, said after her confirmation that DeVos overcame “unprecedented personal assault” from “powerful and entrenched public interests” — primarily teachers unions.

“Americans believe it’s eminently possible to support public education, while at the same time, providing educational choice in communities where public schools are in a state of crisis,” Patru said in a written statement. “Betsy DeVos’s confirmation marks a critically important shift in federal education policy: from now on, the needs of kids will supersede the political interests of adults, and education policies will be decided by states and local school boards, not Washington.”

By the end of the entire 30-hour Senate debate, 42 of the chamber’s 48 members of the Democratic caucus had spoken against DeVos, several more than once. Many called out her several stumbles at her confirmation hearing, particularly on the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“It appears that she has a complete lack of knowledge on what the Department of Education actually does,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri reiterated a point that many rural-state legislators, including Collins and Murkowski, had made: that the private and charter school options that DeVos has long advocated simply don’t exist in rural areas where Trump and Republicans got huge margins in last year’s elections.

“They are kicking in the shins the very voters that gave them power,” she said.  

In contrast, there was markedly little support from Republicans, who have been hounded for weeks by advocates opposed to DeVos’s nomination — perhaps not a surprise after the deluge of public protest that crested in a parody on Saturday Night Live this past weekend.

President Trump finally tweeted about the nomination at 8:15 Tuesday morning, saying Senate Democrats “protest to keep the failed status quo” and that DeVos is a “reformer” who will be a great education secretary.

Ultimately, just four of the chamber’s 52 Republicans spoke on her behalf during the floor debate.

Sen. Tim Scott, a longtime DeVos supporter, repeated that DeVos can’t single-handedly privatize schools.

“Yes, we should have a passionate debate about education, and yes, we should make sure that the focus of that debate is on the kids,” he said in the final seconds of the marathon discussion.

On Tuesday morning, Murray called on the advocates who opposed DeVos to stay involved.

“I encourage them to keep using their voices…,” she said. “It is well worth the fight.”

One of those groups, The High School Democrats of America, which claims 7,500 members across 500 chapters, said Republicans “shamefully pushed through the most unqualified nominee for Education Secretary in this nation’s history” and warned “they will pay dearly.”

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