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DeVos squeaks through to education secretary post

Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing shot

Following a bruising confirmation process and a deafening public outcry over her nomination, Betsy DeVos was confirmed on Feb. 7 as education secretary by the U.S. Senate in a 51-50 vote. Vice President Mike Pence was forced to cast a historic vote after two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, voted against her appointment.

Exposing the breadth of opposition to her, it was the first time that a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination, according to a Senate historian cited in press accounts.

DeVos, a billionaire who has used her fortune to promote for-profit charter schools and vouchers, drew withering criticism for her lackluster performance at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17. During the hearing, she revealed her lack of knowledge about key education issues, including the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the difference between growth and proficiency, and she defended the need for guns in schools by citing rural schools that must fend off grizzly bears.

Democrat and Republican senators alike noted at that hearing that their offices had been flooded by calls from constituents asking them to vote no.

Two weeks later, Murkowski and Collins announced that they would not support her nomination.

“I have heard from thousands — truly thousands — of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor on Feb. 1. “They've contacted me by phone, by e-mail, in person, and their concerns center, as mine do, on Mrs. DeVos's lack of experience with public education and the lack of knowledge that she portrayed in her confirmation hearing.”

DeVos attended and sent her children to private schools, has never taught in a public school and has no experience in education administration. 

“The mission of the Department of Education is broad, but supporting public education is at its core,” said Collins. “I will not, I cannot vote to confirm her as our nation’s next secretary of education.”

DeVos’ opponents, with six days to find one more “no” vote to stop the nomination, unleashed a second flurry of phone calls and faxes on Republican senators. The UFT reached out via email to retirees residing in states where Republican senators had not yet announced their support for DeVos and they asked in-service members via text message, email and social media to appeal to friends and family in those states to make phone calls. Several chapters organized anti-DeVos protests outside their schools.

But one by one, the senators closed ranks behind DeVos. In a final act of frustration and protest, Senate Democrats held a 24-hour marathon debate on the Senate floor leading up to the Feb. 7 vote at noon.

It is an inauspicious beginning for DeVos, whose enormous family wealth enabled her to set the educational agenda in her home state of Michigan. For-profit charter schools there have multiplied with little oversight or accountability and siphoned millions of dollars and countless students from the public schools. Michigan’s test scores fell as her policies took effect and remain far below the national average.

“This process made clear to parents and teachers across the country what billionaire Betsy DeVos is all about,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “She has contempt for public education and wants to dismantle neighborhood public schools. We know the DeVos playbook. Now we have to stand together and work to protect what we value — our public schools.”

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