Hundreds of educators, parents, civil rights activists, and U.S. senators assembled across from the U.S. Capitol on Monday evening to urge “just one more” senator to stand up and cast the deciding ‘no’ vote on Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary. Coming on the eve of the confirmation vote, the rally was the final exclamation point of a nationwide mobilization against a nominee whom educators consider dangerously unqualified to lead our public schools.
The effort to defeat DeVos went into overdrive last week when GOP Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, due to the overwhelming response from educators, parents and community members in their states, announced they would be breaking ranks with their party and voting against DeVos.
With all 48 Democrats already united against her, DeVos was suddenly hanging by a thread. Only one more GOP vote was needed.
Already deluged with emails and phone calls, senate offices from both parties were hit again over the weekend.
“Your calls and outreach have been amazing,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told the rally on Monday evening. “You’ve really freaked out a lot of my GOP colleagues.”
In the end, however, that last ‘no’ vote proved elusive. DeVos was confirmed on Tuesday when Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a vote to break the 50-50 deadlock – the first time in the nation’s history this action was necessary to approve a cabinet nominee.
Despite the disappointing outcome, the mobilization against DeVos shook Capitol Hill and the White House.
“In my years as a public education advocate, I have never witnessed this level of public outcry,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “The nomination has touched a raw nerve not only with public education advocates like me but with the general public as well.”
The level of engagement – which ran deep and across party lines – was nothing short of astounding.
Educators, parents and allies sent more than 1 million letters via NEA’s activism site and made 80,000 phone calls in 4 weeks, urging senators to vote no. Opposition swelled nationally, and senators reported that the three days ending last week resulted in the most calls into the Capitol switchboard in history.
“Americans across the nation drove a bipartisan repudiation of the Trump-DeVos agenda for students and public education,” remarked Eskelsen García after the vote on Tuesday. “This marks only the beginning of the resistance.”
From Shoo-In to Deadlock
Nominees for cabinet positions, let alone for Education Secretary, rarely generate this intense level of opposition. Then again, no recent nominee seemed so utterly unfit for the post as Betsy DeVos.
DeVos is the first secretary of education with zero experience with public schools. None of her children attended public school. She’s never worked in a public school. She’s never been a teacher or a school administrator, nor served on any public board of education.
While the spiraling concerns over DeVos weren’t enough to deliver the 51st vote necessary to ultimately defeat the nomination, there’s little doubt that DeVos emerges from the confirmation battle a weakened figure.
More disqualifying, however, is her long, well-established record of trying to dismantle the public education system she is now charged with overseeing. The billionaire DeVos family, a top donor to the Michigan Republican Party, has led the charge for privatization by bankrolling multiple efforts to bring voucher schemes and unregulated charter schools to their state.
It was DeVos’ long record of anti-public education activism that triggered swift and immediate opposition as soon as then President-elect Donald Trump announced her nomination on Nov. 23. Still, few observers in Washington saw any major potholes on her road to confirmation. But educators and parents’ full-court press was only just getting started.
They got a major assist by DeVos’ widely panned appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on January 17. DeVos’ glaring lack of knowledge about central education issues was on full-display, including an apparent unfamiliarity with the basic tenets of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“The fact that the nominee for secretary of education did not know how the federal government protects special education students is infuriating,” Henoch Hailu, an educator from Maryland, told the protestors on Monday.
DeVos also refused to rule out cutting public school funding to pay for school voucher programs and she shocked many when she hedged on upholding the 2011 Title IX guidance as it relates to sexual assault on campus. Her bizarre response to a question about gun violence that firearms should be allowed in schools to protect students against grizzly bears became a popular Internet meme.
Activists were emboldened by DeVos’ disastrous performance and a steady drip of unfavorable press soon followed. The news got even worse for the nominee when it was revealed that she had plagiarized some of her written responses to her Senate questionnaire. In addition, DeVos continued to be hounded by questions about unresolved conflict-of-interest issues over her financial holdings. Two former ethics counsels to Presidents Obama and George W. Bush wrote in “The Hill”: “Seldom have we seen a worse cabinet-level ethics mess than that presented by Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s choice for education secretary.”
The Trump-DeVos Agenda: Still Unacceptable
While the spiraling concerns over DeVos weren’t enough to deliver the 51st vote necessary to ultimately defeat the nomination, there’s little doubt that DeVos emerges from the confirmation battle in many respects a hobbled and weakened figure. As Politico reported last week:
“Historically, education secretaries have seized the secretary’s bully pulpit and traveled around the nation to promote their ideas. But that may be more challenging for DeVos…. Her poor performance during her confirmation hearing reinforced concerns about her lack of conventional classroom experience and commitment to public schools.”
Still, anyone who has followed DeVos over the years will tell you that she is resourceful and relentless. She was undeterred in 2000 when 69 percent of Michigan voters rejected a change to the constitution that would have opened the door to vouchers. DeVos turned instead to funding voucher programs in other states and lifting the cap on charter schools – without any safeguards for accountability or transparency. As Education Secretary, DeVos will be charged with amassing support for President Trump’s $20 million proposal to expand charter schools and vouchers.
But the confirmation battle exposed not only DeVos’ lack of qualifications and preparedness, but also her extreme ideology. As Secretary of Education, DeVos will for the first time face a new, previously unfamiliar constraint: accountability.
“America is speaking out. The level of energy is palpable,” said Eskelsen García. “We are going to watch what Betsy DeVos does. And we are going to hold her accountable for the actions and decisions she makes on behalf of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s public schools.”