Betsy DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist, was confirmed to serve as the education secretary in the Trump administration on Tuesday after massive resistance from Democrats and protesters.
Although DeVos has no experience working at a public school or attending a public school, she is now tasked with running an agency that oversees the country’s public education system.
After a deadlock in the Senate over DeVos’ confirmation, Vice President Mike Pence cast a historically unprecedented tie-breaking vote to move her confirmation forward. It was the first time in the nation’s history that a vice president has had to step in to resolve a tie on a cabinet nomination.
Two moderate Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME), withheld support for DeVos’ confirmation after tens of thousands of phone calls from activists and constituents demanding their senators reject DeVos. On Monday afternoon, Democrats opposed her nomination by holding the Senate floor in an effort to persuade more Republicans to oppose her. They continued to speak against her nomination overnight.
Senators and teachers unions were even more outspoken in their opposition to DeVos after her confirmation hearing, during which she claimed to be confused about a federal law protecting students with disabilities, refused to say she wouldn’t privatize the education system, and said guns in schools were sometimes necessary to protect students from grizzly bears.
Over the past couple weeks, senators’ offices have been flooded with thousands of calls and there have been multiple protests against DeVos by teachers unions and their allies. On Monday, hundreds of people, many of them educators, stood outside Capitol Hill to protest her nomination.
The opposition to DeVos was so fierce that, in the last few days before her Senate vote, someone paid sites such as Swagbucks.com and Instagc.com to pay people to go to SupportDeVos.com and support her nomination.
Lawmakers who voted against DeVos said they were concerned about whether rural schools would served by private school vouchers since many rural communities don’t have private school options. Sen. Claire McClaskill (D-MO) hammered at this point minutes before the final vote and said Trump’s decision to tap DeVos for education secretary is a betrayal of many of the people who voted for him.
“The reddest part of my state are places where there are no private schools … In rural areas of this country, there are no private schools for parents and kids to choose,” McClaskill said. “They are kicking in the shins the very voters that put them in power.”
In addition to her inability to answer simple questions at the confirmation hearing, government ethics paperwork found that DeVos will be required to divest from 102 of her financial holdings that could pose a conflict of interest in her role as education secretary. She has agreed to end her financial relationship with many of the companies that posed a conflict, but hasn’t cut off ties with others. She also failed to complete supplemental information senators requested for some of her financial holdings. DeVos may have also plagiarized some of her answers to senators’ questions about her positions on numerous issues, The Associated Press reported.
During Democrats’ all-night floor session to oppose DeVos, they focused on her financial holdings, her lack of experience working in public education, and her inability to commit to upholding basic civil rights protections.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said he was concerned about DeVos’ ties to dark money operations. Sitting Republican senators have received more than $100,000 from DeVos.
“I can understand a woman who is billionaire wanting companies to succeed, but our public education system is not a company.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said she did not see how DeVos could serve the interests of public school students, given her lack of experience in the public school system, either as a teacher or a student.
“I can understand a woman who is billionaire wanting companies to succeed, but our public education system is not a company,” Murray said.
Despite her successful confirmation, national teachers union leaders say they will continue to hold DeVos accountable.
“No nominee has united Republicans and Democrats the way DeVos has. The level of energy is palpable,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “We are going to watch what Betsy DeVos does. And we are going to hold her accountable for the actions and decisions she makes on behalf of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s public schools.”
In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said DeVos’ confirmation represented a “sad day for children.”
“It’s telling that even when Trump had full control of the legislative and executive branches, he could only get DeVos confirmed by an unprecedented tiebreaking vote by his vice president,” Weingartern said.