Pence’s historic vote confirms DeVos as education chief
Washington — Betsy DeVos of Michigan on Tuesday became the 11th secretary of education after a bruising confirmation that suggests her education policy reforms will face resistance.
Before she had even been sworn into office, the opponents of DeVos were vowing to fight her agenda. It is expected to include President Donald Trump's campaign promise to invest $20 billion in expanding access to alternatives to traditional public schools, such as charter and private schools.
"I appreciate the Senate's diligence & am honored to serve as @usedgov Secretary," DeVos tweeted. "Let's improve options & outcomes for all US students."
DeVos is set to give a speech Wednesday at an all-employee meeting at the Education Department, where she'll discuss its work and mission.
A billionaire from the Grand Rapids area, DeVos proved to be among the most polarizing of Trump’s nominees. She inspired protests in communities around the country, headed by teachers unions, as millions of calls tied up Senate phone lines in recent weeks.
"Americans across the nation drove a bipartisan repudiation of the Trump-DeVos agenda for students and public education. This marks only the beginning of the resistance,” Lily Eskelsen García, president of the nation's largest union, the National Education Association, said in a statement.
In a historic act, Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote that allowed the Senate to confirm DeVos' nomination, 51-50. It was the first time in the country’s history that a vice president had to cast a vote for a cabinet nominee, according to the Senate Historical Office.
“The Senate being evenly divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative, and the nomination is confirmed,” Pence said before leaving the dais to shake hands with lawmakers.
On Tuesday evening, Pence administered the oath of office to DeVos.
“When I cast my first vote in the United States Senate, I wasn't just voting for you ... I was also casting a vote for America’s children,” Pence said in remarks before the swearing-in.
Allies hail DeVos as a reformer who will disrupt the education establishment, shifting greater decision-making power to states and localities. Critics say she’s an ideologue who worked to undermine the mission of the department she would lead and supposedly has unresolved conflicts of interest in her investment portfolio.
Democrats held the Senate floor for more than 24 hours overnight and through Tuesday morning, speaking against DeVos and reading letters from concerned citizens until the time for debate expired.
As expected, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined the Democratic wing of 48 senators in voting no on DeVos’ nomination, teeing up the 50-50 tie. But the Democrats failed to inspire other Republicans to defect.
Democrats' tactics criticized
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer criticized the "childish tactics" of Democrats who would "rather keep the failed status quo, than allowing to put the president's people in place."
"The fact we had to get to the point where the vice president had to be pulled into overcome the Democrats' historic and partisan logjam with the president's qualified nominee is another glaring reminder of the unprecedented obstruction that the Senate Democrats have engaged in throughout this process," Spicer told reporters.
Under Article I of the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate but has no vote in the chamber unless the members are evenly split. The last time a vice president broke a tie in the Senate was in March 2008 when Dick Cheney cast a vote on a budget resolution during the George W. Bush administration.
A handful of Republicans defended DeVos on the floor, noting she can’t unilaterally make major policy decisions about public education, despite dire warnings from Democrats.
“We’ve heard a whole lot of hyperbole about what the next secretary of education could do, as if that person could somehow -- with a magic want -- change education. That would take action by this Congress to make that happen,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, said on the floor.
“I’m a supporter of school choice; however, it would just be an option under the best-case scenario, where states would have more options at the cafeteria. ... She’s not going to be able to mandate choice. That will be our decision.”
DeVos, 59, has no experience as an teacher or administrator but has been an advocate in the national school choice movement, lobbying for the expansion of taxpayer-funded vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs, as well as virtual and charter schools. Trump campaigned in part on a school-choice platform, but it had few details.
A former two-time Michigan Republican Party chairwoman, DeVos until recently chaired the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization. She has said she wants every parent to have the ability to decide the best form of education for their child.
Education committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said Tuesday that DeVos’ confirmation would swap “a national school board for a local school board.”
"I'm voting for Betsy DeVos because she will implement our law fixing No Child Left Behind the way we wrote it, to restore control to classroom teachers and legislators," Alexander said on the floor. "And because she has been at the forefront of public charter schools and worked tirelessly to give low-income children more of the same kind of choices wealthy families have."
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education panel, said DeVos and Republicans should take notice of the thousands of citizens who became "energized" over DeVos' nomination.
"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," Murray said in a statement. "So I am hopeful that she enters her new role taking this to heart, and ready to adjust her views."
DeVos' positions questioned
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, spoke on the floor Monday evening, highlighting the poor performance of some charter schools in Michigan, which has relatively weak oversight of charters and among the highest rates of charters run by for-profit organizations.
“There are no statewide standards for revoking a charter, and taxpayer money is sent to them with virtually no public disclosure requirements,” Stabenow said.
She said DeVos’ free-market vision works in the private marketplace but is incompatible with the education system.
“Businesses open. They compete. They don’t do well, and they close. Or they do very well, and they grow,” Stabenow said. “A winners-and-losers system is not good enough for our kids.”
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, recalled DeVos’ push for vouchers in Michigan, where her advocacy earned DeVos the nickname as the “Four-Star General of the Pro-Voucher Movement,” he said.
“Michigan voters soundly rejected her plan, and we cannot – and I repeat cannot – put her in a position to push for voucher programs on a national scale that will weaken our neighborhood schools, and will weaken in particular our rural schools,” Peters said on the floor.
Peters also raised concerns about DeVos’ reluctance to commit to enforcing 2011 guidance from the Department of Education urging campuses to better investigate and adjudicate allegations of sexual assault. The department has opened investigations into more than 200 schools.
Under questioning at her confirmation hearing, DeVos said it was “premature” to say whether she would enforce the guidance.
“This is completely unacceptable to me as a senator representing over 500,000 undergraduate students attending one of Michigan’s outstanding colleges and universities. This is completely unacceptable to me as a father,” said Peters, who has two college-age daughters.
DeVos family spokesman Greg McNeilly accompanied DeVos in Washington for the vote.
“The confirmation process, I think, has demonstrated the challenges we have in this country where politicians, the media and activists even have been less interested in truth, accuracy and a conversation and more interested in yelling and pointing fingers and playing the game,” McNeilly said.
“But this being America, we know tomorrow is always better, and we roll our sleeves up. One of the things that can unite this country is our common passion for public education and making sure the education system is strong for all students.”
Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed