This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
AP Photo Scott Applewhite
UPDATED 5:40 p.m. with report of Toomey statement on Capitol Hill With Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska declaring that they will oppose Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education, only one more vote was needed to prevent her nomination. The pressure had been increasing on Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, to be that vote. In effect, the fate of her nomination could be in his hands. But just hours after several dozen City Council members, parents of students with disabilities, and education advocates went to his Center City Philadelphia office to deliver a letter in opposition, Toomey told reporters on Capitol Hill that "I will absolutely be voting for Betsy DeVos." "I don’t know where the mystery came from — I’m a big fan of Betsy DeVos," he said, according to a report by Inquirer Washington correspondent Jonathan Tamari. Earlier, his communications director told the Philly Voice that he considered DeVos "a great pick." Efforts by the Notebook to reach Toomey’s office by phone and email were unsuccessful. Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym, who has led the local effort to derail DeVos, said: “If Toomey votes yes on Betsy DeVos, it will be a slap in the face to the public school students of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania — especially to the quarter-million students with disabilities across the commonwealth and the even greater number living in poverty.” For weeks, education advocates have been gathering at the senator’s offices across the state, including in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, and Scranton, for "Tuesdays with Toomey" to forcefully oppose DeVos. The phones and fax machines were inundated. Callers to any of his offices, including Washington, D.C., would get either a busy signal or no answer. Yesterday, a contingent led by Gym and including other Council members, disability rights advocates, and education and civil rights activists delivered a letter to staff in his Philadelphia office. Five of them were ushered in and held a 20-minute meeting with staff to reinforce their position. Gym and her staff had been hopeful that the pressure would have an effect, seeing signs of some receptivity to the message and a nod to the magnitude of the constituent response. But in the email quoted by the Voice, Toomey communications director E.R. Anderson said Toomey regarded DeVos as a "champion of school choice," while adding that the senator "does appreciate the feedback from folks in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania." Gym has been one of DeVos’ most vocal opponents. "She is simply unfit for the position," Gym said. "I don’t think it’s a partisan viewpoint. The fact is that Betsy DeVos is openly hostile to public education and to the most vulnerable students within the system." DeVos, a free market proponent, favors charter schools and vouchers that students can use to attend private and religious schools as the solution to the country’s education woes. She has been quoted as calling public education "a dead end." In her home state of Michigan, she pushed relentlessly for charter expansion, and most Detroit schools are now charters, about 80 percent of them run for profit. Data show that they perform only marginally better than traditional public schools. Particularly troublesome is her position on students with disabilities, Gym said. At her confirmation hearing, DeVos appeared to be unfamiliar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees the rights of students with disabilities in school. She said the issue should be up to the states. That response "exhibits a level of indifference and cruelty that are disqualifying for an education secretary," Gym said. Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of the Public Interest Law Center was one of those at Toomey’s office. He said: "There are hundreds of thousands of children who receive special education services in Pennsylvania public schools, and every single one of their family members should be concerned about Betsy DeVos. Under any circumstances, she’s unqualified to lead the department, but at this moment in history, when in the first 10 days of this administration, we have seen all sorts of disturbing discriminatory policies, it’s especially troubling to put someone into that office who has not even the faintest knowledge of the laws that protect our children."
DeVos, a billionaire, and her family have donated millions to conservative and Republican causes and candidates. According to an analysis of campaign contributions by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, she and her family gave $957,500 to 21 Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, including $60,050 to Toomey. That was one of the highest individual totals, behind only Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
At her confirmation hearing, she acknowledged in answering a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont that "it’s possible" that she and her family have donated $200 million to Republican causes over the years.
Education Week reported that a procedural vote on the nomination was underway Wednesday and that a final vote on DeVos would occur next week.