By the narrowest of margins, the U.S. Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Betsy DeVos to be the nation's new education secretary.
A 50-50 deadlock over her confirmation was broken by Vice President Mike Pence who became the first vice president ever to cast a tie-breaking vote for a cabinet nominee.
The vote to confirm DeVos came after Senate Democrats staged an all-night Senate talkathon Monday evening, a tactic to draw attention to their opposition to the Michigan billionaire who has no experience working, attending or volunteering at a public school.
DeVos now becomes the sixth cabinet appointment of President Donald Trump's to be confirmed.
Reaction to DeVos' confirmation was swift, USA TODAY reported.
Donna Brazile, interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, targeted potentially vulnerable senators who backed DeVos for defeat in 2018, including Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada. She said "their constituents ... will cast their votes next year to kick them out of office for selling out their state’s public schoolchildren."
Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6-million-member American Federation for Teachers, said the outcry over DeVos' nomination showed that, "the 'public' in public education has never been more visible or more vocal."
The conservative Club for Growth applauded the victory, saying DeVos beat back a "full-court press" by teachers unions, aided in part by its own "six-figure investment in TV and digital ads and robocalls to caution potential Republican defectors."
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a likely GOP candidate for governor next year, also praised the vote. "For 28 years, Betsy DeVos has made it her mission to ensure children receive a quality education, and now she will be able to do that on a much large scale."
Pence was needed to break the 50-50 tie after two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced their opposition to DeVos last week. The rural state Republicans said that DeVos lacked the experience to understand "the challenges" facing public schools.
Democrats unified opposition to DeVos came after a nomination hearing where she failed to demonstrate a deep understanding of education philosophy.
An exasperated Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, recalled on the Senate floor just before 10:00 p.m. Monday night his exchange with DeVos during the hearing last month where he asked if she was partial to an educational philosophy where children are measured on growth within the academic year or on proficiency of a grade level.
"She had no idea what I was talking about," Franken said. "I can't overstate how central this issue is to education."
Clips from the hearing that circulated on social media further mobilized people in opposition to DeVos. While she was one of the eight cabinet secretaries Democrats originally said they would mount an opposition campaign, the public fury over DeVos surprised even them.
Supported by progressive groups and local Democratic parties, calls flooded into Senate offices, jamming phone lines, pressuring Democrats to fight her nomination and urging Republicans to oppose her. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, said that most of the calls she's receiving are about DeVos and 90 percent are in opposition. And Sen. Bob Casey, R-Penn., has received more than 100,000 calls opposed to DeVos, more calls on one topic than he's had since he entered the Senate in 2007, according to an Democratic aide.
In addition, rallies have been organized at Senate district offices around the country. Such pressure successfully influenced Collins and Murkowksi.
Democrats have also expressed concerns that DeVos is philosophically opposed to public schools — and her business ties raise questions about conflicts of interest. She has personally invested in private and charter schools and been an outspoken advocate on both.
So while they couldn't stop her confirmation, Democrats can make it as painful as possible. They plan to use a similar delay tactic for more nominees, including for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, to be attorney general. The Senate is expected to move to his confirmation next.
The strategy allows time to mount public opposition but also use up valuable floor time that will backlog legislation Republicans and the Trump administration wish to pass this year, including health care reform.
Republicans plan on votes to confirm Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin and Rep. Tom Price to be secretary of Health and Human Services Department. The Democrats' strategy could force a vote on Mnuchin into Saturday morning, a day of the week the Senate rarely works.
Republicans have sharply criticized Democrats tactics to slow down the nomination process. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it "juvenile," and Sen. Collins said it's "not really far."
"I don't really understand the point of their tactics. It's not going to have an influence on the final vote," she said specifically of Democrats delay of DeVos.
Based on the hearings and the negative reaction to the nomination in Congress by members of both parties, some parents of school-aged children are wary of what to expect.
Pat Burk, a professor in Portland State’s School of Education and a former state policy advisor says it’s too early to tell.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Burk. “The disturbing thing is her answers during the hearing did not address the issues, causing a lot of anxiety. Just what does she believe?”
School choice advocates cheered the confirmation, both here in Oregon and across the country. Steve Buckstein of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute said he hopes DeVos will help students use public education dollars to use in private schools, an idea strongly opposed by public school advocates.
“Most families in America don’t have choice because they can’t afford to pay taxes for the public schools and tuition for private schools both,” said Buckstein. “So they end up going to a school assigned to them by their zip code.”
Buckstein said many schools fall short of meeting students’ needs.
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