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DeVos edges closer to becoming education boss

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

West Michigan school choice advocate and Republican activist Betsy DeVos is set to make history early next week when the U.S Senate votes on her controversial nomination to become the next secretary of education.

If Republican support for DeVos holds firm at 50 senators, Vice President Mike Pence would be asked to break the tie. It would be the first time in at least 30 years the vice president cast a deciding vote for a cabinet nominee, according to Senate records.

But if Democrats can find another GOP senator to join Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine in opposition, DeVos would become only the second appointee of a first-term president to fail to get confirmed in the nation’s 228-year history. The first happened in 1989 when the Democrat-controlled Senate narrowly rejected President George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary nominee John Tower.

In a 52-48 vote early Friday morning, the Senate approved a “cloture” motion to bypass a potential Democratic filibuster and limit debate on DeVos’ nomination to an additional 30 hours, setting up a final confirmation vote Monday or Tuesday.

President Donald Trump’s selection to lead the U.S. Department of Education has divided the Senate, largely along partisan lines. Critics argue DeVos’ long-held support for charter schools and private school vouchers is evidence she could move to undermine the traditional public school system, while supporters say she supports local control and improving education for all.

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine both voted for the motion but have made clear they will vote against DeVos’ nomination next week, leaving the chamber evenly divided at 50-50.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a Friday briefing that the Trump administration believes DeVos’ confirmation is certain.

“Betsy DeVos is an unbelievable champion of education, for children, for teachers, for parents,” Spicer said. “…We are going to make sure we do everything we can and we are 100 percent confident that she will be confirmed as the next education secretary on Monday.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer began the Friday morning debate at 6:30 a.m. by calling DeVos “one of the worst nominees that has ever been brought before this body for a cabinet position.”

“On the grounds of competence and ideology and conflict of interest, she scores very, very low,” the New York Democrat said in a floor speech, encouraging Republicans to reconsider their support over the weekend.

DeVos cleared the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday in a party-line vote.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chairs that panel, reiterated his support for DeVos on Friday and praised her long track record of advocacy for school choice policies, which can help students to escape failing schools.

While DeVos has little experience in public education, Alexander noted dozens of current and past Republican governors have backed her nomination, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former Gov. John Engler.

“They see her as someone from outside the system of public education who, as they have done for 30 years, can help change it and improve it,” Alexander said.

He also argued that DeVos would put a greater emphasis on local control in education policy and reduce the reach of the federal government.

“There will be no mandates for common core, no mandates for teacher evaluation, no mandates for vouchers, no mandates for anything else from a United States Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos,” Alexander said. “We’ll be swapping a national school board for what she believes in, which is a local school board.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington state, accused Republicans of trying to “jam” through DeVos’ nomination and complained that Democrats did not have a chance to ask her in committee about the conflicts agreement she reached with the Office of Government Ethics.

Murray pointed out that DeVos is a past chair of the Michigan Republican Party, arguing she is “first and foremost… a conservative activist and mega donor” who lacks any significant experience in the public education system, which she suggested DeVos wants to privatize and “destroy.”

The more people learn about DeVos, “the more the pressure increases on Republicans to put their allegiance to President Trump aside, and stand with their constituents,” Murray said.

DeVos, who is from the Grand Rapids area, is a billionaire businesswoman who twice chaired the Michigan GOP and helped form several education reform groups at both the national and state level, including the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project.

DeVos has stepped down from those positions and said she and her husband, Dick, will not make any political contributions if she becomes education secretary. They and other family members have made more than $82 million in political donations since the beginning of 1999, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Michigan U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters each voted against the cloture motion Friday morning and are expected to vote against DeVos’ nomination.

Democrats who spoke out against DeVos lambasted her committee testimony last month, including her apparent confusion over a federal law providing protections for students with disabilities. DeVos has since said she is “eager to bring a sense of urgency” to enforcing the law.

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said DeVos has been “passionate” about helping low-income students for decades and argued she is committed to improving public education even though she and her own children attended private schools.

“Many wealthy families choose to do that because they have that option,” Lankford said. “Betsy DeVos, though, has been a person to raise her hand and say why do only wealthy families get to choose where there kids go to school?”

Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed