Washington — More Republican senators declared their support for Michigan’s Betsy DeVos to become education secretary Thursday, as Detroit native and billionaire charter school supporter Eli Broad urged her defeat from Los Angeles.
Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska joined Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Jeff Flake of Arizona, among others, in affirming their intent to vote yes on DeVos’ nomination, suggesting she could clinch the post despite the defection this week of two GOP moderates.
“While I do not agree with Mrs. DeVos on every issue, I do believe she has the ability and commitment to lead the department,” Fischer said in a Thursday statement.
“Moreover, I have received assurances from her in writing that the Department of Education will not impose new federal mandates related to vouchers on our schools.”
Portman and Flake lauded DeVos for championing local control and school choice, while Broad questioned her qualifications.
“Indeed, with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, much of the good work that has been accomplished to improve public education for all of America's children could be undone,” Broad wrote in a letter Wednesday to Senate leadership. “In short, I believe she is unprepared and unqualified for the position.”
Like Broad, DeVos is a billionaire from Michigan, but they differ on taxpayer-funded vouchers, which DeVos has lobbied for throughout her career. A businesswoman and GOP mega donor, she twice chaired the Michigan Republican Party.
President Donald Trump’s nomination of DeVos has drawn criticism from Democrats and teachers unions largely over her advocacy for charters and vouchers, as well as her millions of dollars in political donations to Republican lawmakers and causes.
The battle lines narrowed Wednesday when Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine said they would oppose DeVos.
Republicans have a two-seat edge in the Senate, so DeVos could still get confirmed with the loss of two senators in a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence. It would be the first time a vice president casts a deciding vote for a cabinet nominee in at least 30 years, according to Senate records.
Assuming all Democrats and independents in the Senate vote no, DeVos cannot afford to lose the support of another GOP senator. If she does, DeVos would become the second cabinet nominee of a first-term president in history not to be confirmed. The first was former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, who in 1989 lost his bid to become defense secretary for President George H.W. Bush.
Broad’s letter drew attention because, like DeVos, he has supported charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools.
Through their foundation, Broad and his wife, Edythe, have contributed millions of dollars toward programs intended to improve K-12 education. He attended public schools growing up in Detroit and graduated from Michigan State University, where the College of Business is named for him.
He started a homebuilding business and in 1963 moved the headquarters to Los Angeles, where he still lives. There, Broad has invested in efforts to boost the number of charter schools operating in the city.
“Eli Broad is a Democrat who doesn’t support vouchers,” said Ed Patru, spokesman for a group of DeVos allies. “His decision not to endorse Betsy is about as surprising as the fact that Jim Harbaugh hasn’t endorsed MSU football.”
DeVos has pledged not to mandate vouchers on the states. Her supporters dispute claims that she has no experience with public schools, noting her work to expand charter schools, which are publicly funded.
DeVos’ opponents organized a campaign to call senators across the spectrum. The National Education Association said last week that members and other advocates had emailed more than a million letters and placed more than 40,000 calls to senators urging them to oppose DeVos.
And members of the Michigan Education Association “are committed to contacting all senators to ensure they understand why Betsy DeVos is the wrong choice for public education,” spokesman Doug Pratt said.
Fischer, who was undecided as late as Wednesday, said on Twitter: “It's all hands on deck in my offices answering phones.”
Calls to the office of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, were met with busy signals Wednesday. Heller, whose wife is a teacher, has said he would back DeVos.
The offices of Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, are also receiving an unprecedented amount of calls regarding DeVos – more than other Trump nominees. Stabenow and Peters intend to vote no.
The American Federation of Teachers has vowed to focus on lobbying every senator who has not yet declared their support or opposition to DeVos, said David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan and national AFT vice president.
“It’s clear she should not be education secretary,” Hecker said. “She has worked to undermine public education. I’ve never seen such an uprising against a nominee for a cabinet position from the grassroots.”
In his letter, Broad said Devos’ performance at her Senate hearing last month reinforced and added to his “serious concerns” about her support for “unregulated” charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling.
“Like many Americans, including public school educators and parents, I watched the committee’s confirmation hearing with dismay,” Broad wrote.
“While I have never met Mrs. DeVos, she undoubtedly is kind and well-intentioned and cares deeply about children, as evidenced by her philanthropic work. However, these personal characteristics do not qualify someone for the massive responsibility of overseeing the education of our nation’s schools.”
The White House continues to push for her confirmation and remains confident she will get confirmed.
“She is an unbelievably qualified educator and advocate for students, teachers, parents,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday. “I think that the games that are being played with Betsy DeVos are sad.”