Rarely is the Senate confirmation of a Secretary of Education either controversial or historical. But then, these are strange days indeed.
On Tuesday, February 7, the United States Senate deadlocked at 50–50 on its vote to install Michigan billionaire and school choice hawk Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education. The tie ballgame invoked Vice President Mike Pence’s role as the ex officio President of the United States Senate. Pence, as a matter of course, voted in favor of Donald Trump’s nominee.
Incidentally, this was the first time in U.S. history that a VP was called upon to perform this official duty in a cabinet confirmation hearing.
With this business behind us, Betsy DeVos will ascend to the president’s cabinet. She becomes the nation’s 11th Secretary of Education and easily the most hotly contested in history.
Historically, Secretaries of Education on both sides of the political aisle have generally entered into office with little partisan entrenchment. The Department of Education traces its roots to the final year of the Carter administration. Shirley Hufstedler, the very first nominee for the position, was confirmed in 1979 with a vote of 81–2. Collectively, Ronald Reagan’s next three nominees received only two nays, to 274 yeas.
So easy has the path been for most nominees that five of the last six cleared the Senate by either a voice vote or unanimous consent. Only the outgoing John King required an actual vote. Still, the Obama nominee cleared the Senate handily with a 49–40 vote.
Speaking in historical terms, the hearing, vote, and public outcry against the DeVos selection have been unique.
Secretary of Privatization?
Briefly, the biggest point of contention for most critics is the fact that the new head of American public schools has never attended, taught at, or sent her children to a public school. DeVos is an outspoken advocate for “School Choice,” and a strong proponent of private, religious and for-profit charter schools. By contrast, DeVos has been withholding of her support for America’s public schools. Her selection engenders fear that public schools will suffer federal funding cuts and general neglect during a Trump Administration. To many critical observers, DeVos represents a mainstream push toward the privatization of America’s schools, and with it, an intensification of many of the same racial and regional inequalities that plague the educational system today.
Indeed, this was the pattern that emerged in the wake of her work as an architect of school choice programs in her home state of Michigan. According to the Detroit Free Press, Detroit’s “deeply dysfunctional educational landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome. And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.”
These contributions are a subject of discord as well. As a long time advocate of conservative causes, a generous campaign donor to Republican candidates, and the beneficiary of numerous family-owned businesses in the private education sphere, DeVos is now in a position to influence policies that directly benefit her family’s bottom line.
At the time of her confirmation, DeVos
“has ties to several education companies, including Social Finance, which started out as a student-loan refinancing company, as well as companies that sell textbooks and promote online education. The companies she’s invested in will be affected by the choices she makes as the head of the department, including decisions about which companies the government contracts with to handle student loans, and how it oversees different sectors, including online or virtual schooling. Democrats and advocacy groups have pushed for assurances that she will put reasonable distance between herself and those companies while she is secretary.”
On top of these very material concerns, DeVos made herself the subject of much ridicule and interweb lampooning when she suggested, during her hearing, that prohibiting guns on school property might leave schools in Wyoming vulnerable to grizzly bear attacks. For your own edification, we can confirm that there is no historical record of any American school in Wyoming or otherwise having been besieged by bear attacks.
These were some of the most salient among an array of concerns expressed by critics. DeVos did little to allay these concerns during a fiery Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in which Senate Democrats dragged her across the coals. As she was pressed on these and other issues, DeVos struggled at times to speak with clarity or knowledge on basic issues such as student assessment, college loan debt, and the enforcement of federal protections for students with disabilities.
One of her harshest inquisitors, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) tweeted after the hearing that the nominee’s “lack of basic knowledge astounded me.”
Last night, I asked Betsy DeVos a very simple Q about student growth & proficiency. Her lack of basic knowledge astounded me. #DevosHearing
— Sen. Al Franken (@SenFranken) January 18, 2017
For a closer look at some of the key exchanges from that hearing, check out our coverage.
Evidence from the hearing that DeVos might lack the experience and knowledge to serve as Secretary of Education spawned nationwide protests by educators, public school advocates, and concerned students. Republican Senators in swing states were flooded with phone calls, emails, and tweets by members of their respective constituencies calling for a rejection of the DeVos nomination.
Every one of the Senate’s Democrats voted against DeVos. Public pressure also ultimately caused two Republicans—Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—to cross party lines. The defections were just enough to invoke the Pence tiebreaker.
Now that Donald Trump has his preferred Secretary of Education in tow, it seems likely that he will push full-steam ahead with a campaign promise to invest $20 billion-worth of federal funds into his School Choice agenda.
We’ll keep you posted as DeVos takes office and unveils her own agenda. But for a small window therein, consider the opening statement from her confirmation hearing:
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child. And they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based, or any other combination.”