The Senate voted as expected Tuesday to confirm Betsy DeVos by the narrowest of margins to head the Department of Education, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.
The 51-50 vote followed an all-night speaking marathon on the Senate floor as Democrats opposed her nomination, citing widespread concerns among educators that her record in support of school choice, and her lack of experience in public education, made her unqualified to be a champion for the nation’s public school systems.
With two GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, having resolved to join the Senate’s 48 Democrats in opposing DeVos, Vice President Mike Pence was forced to cast the tie-breaking vote, marking the first time in history a vice president had to break a tie for a Cabinet nomination, according to Senate historians.
The wealthy GOP donor and philanthropist nominated by President Trump faced an onslaught of resistance from teachers unions and educators for her record of promoting private school vouchers, sparking concerns that she wouldn’t be an effective champion for the nation’s public school systems.
During her nomination hearings, DeVos sought to reassure members of Congress she supports public education and would take steps to to ensure the Every Student Succeeds Act is implemented as Congress intended.
Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon was among those who took to the Senate floor before dawn to urge his Republican counterparts to reconsider their support for DeVos. He argued she would undermine public education and in particular, the opportunity for students from low-income families and children with disabilities and special needs to get a better education in their community schools.
“That’s the vision we are fighting for that is about to be deeply damaged, should the reins of public education be handed over to an individual who wants to destroy public education,” Merkley said.
Hoping to turn discussion away from DeVos’ contentious nomination, and back on the needs of students, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, praised DeVos’ confirmation and her “vision for disrupting a failed status quo that has denied too many children access to a quality education.
It’s time to upend the entrenched special interests that put adults above genuine reforms that will raise student achievement,” he said.
Many remain unconvinced DeVos has the experience to exercise that vision. Patty Murray of Washington state, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s top Democrat, told DeVos during nomination hearings that she and other senators had “major concerns with how you have spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools.”