President Donald Trump’s controversial pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate following a historic tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
DeVos, a billionaire businesswoman and champion of charter schools and vouchers, faced stiff opposition from Democrats, public school advocates, and even some Republicans. Among their criticism, detractors cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education—having neither taught, administered, attended, nor enrolled her own children in public school. Supporters framed her lack of experience as one of her strengths, arguing the nation’s education system needed an outsider to fix it.
I appreciate the Senate's diligence & am honored to serve as @usedgov Secretary. Let's improve options & outcomes for all US students.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVos) February 7, 2017
Local and national education advocates launched a fierce battle against her confirmation, with countless taking to social media encouraging phone calls to senators and the proliferation of a popular anti-DeVos hashtag, #DumpDeVos. Democrats staged a 24-hour #HoldTheFloor talkathon Monday evening in protest. Two GOP senators, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted against her, bringing the count to a 50-50 tie.
Ultimately, all these efforts weren’t enough to thwart DeVos’ confirmation, with Vice President Pence’s never-done-before vote—the first time in U.S. history a vice president has broken a tie for a Cabinet nominee’s Senate confirmation—securing President Trump’s nomination for education secretary. Both took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to herald her addition.
— President Trump (@POTUS) February 7, 2017
— Vice President Pence (@VP) February 7, 2017
DeVos has a long history of promoting school choice through charter schools and vouchers in her home state of Michigan. Despite a billion-dollar investment of taxpayer funds in charter schools in Michigan, test scores were no higher than in public schools and in many cases, lower, according to an investigation by the Detroit Free Press.
Critics of charter schools charge that these privately run schools take much-needed public funds with little to no oversight or transparency, stripping them of much-needed money they require to sustain themselves, and resulting in school closures. This cycle of defunding public schools by diverting taxpayer money to charters, thereby closing underfunded public schools deemed “failing,” is a means to privatize the public education system, they argue.
Critics also contend that because charter school teachers are rarely unionized, the privatization strategy is a means to lessen the power of teachers unions.
“It’s like a cancer or a Trojan horse,” Mark Naison, Forham University professor and public education advocate, told the Press regarding charter schools. “These charter schools are not trying to improve the public schools, they’re trying to undermine them.”
DeVos endured a tense Senate hearing, where she demonstrated what critics believed was a significant lack of knowledge about federal laws governing special education students, showed ignorance of the difference between measuring students’ proficiency and growth, and presented a convoluted argument in support of arming teachers in case of attacks by “grizzly bears.”
Locally, DeVos faced a groundswell of opposition from major education groups, including the New York State United Teachers, the United Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as well as local groups on Long Island such as the Badass Teachers Association, New York State Allies for Public Education and Action Together Long Island.
Her opponents took to social media Tuesday to vent their displeasure, with Sen. Charles Schumer mocking Pence’s historical tie-breaker as proof of how unqualified DeVos is.
This cabinet nom is so unqualified, so divisive, that @MikePenceVP had to drive down Pennsylvania Ave to cast the deciding vote.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) February 7, 2017
Others lamented DeVos’ ascension, and vowed to fight on.
Heartbreaking. Now we're going to have to hold the floor every decision, every action, every bill. https://t.co/sYDMb5UP2Q
— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) February 7, 2017
BATs Press Release – The Confirmation of Betsy DeVos – A Sad Day for Public Education but We Will Continue to Fight! https://t.co/AVqdi0sOVB
— Badass Teachers Asso (@BadassTeachersA) February 7, 2017
“Today, 50 Senate Republicans and Vice President Pence have shown their disdain for our nation’s public education system,” New York education advocates Kesi Foster and Natasha Capers said in a statement to media outlets on behalf of the Urban Youth Collaborative and the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice. “Betsy DeVos’s performance during the Senate hearing and her follow-up answers have demonstrated she is wholly unqualified to head the Department of Education. DeVos has spent the last two decades using her family’s fortune to dismantle public education in Michigan by weakening accountability and oversight, elevating for-profit charter schools, and undermining efforts to foster equity for low-income communities of color.
Last month, opponents slammed NYS Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Smithtown), former chair of the state education committee, for supporting DeVos.
Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out, characterized DeVos’s confirmation as “a very dark day indeed” on Facebook.
“Anyone who watched those confirmation hearings or dipped even an inch into her background yet still supports her nomination is doing so under a delusional ego-driven political pretense and cares nothing for his young constituents in our Long Island public schools or their parents,” she’d previously told the Press.