This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education Tuesday. The vote was tied, 50-50, and Vice President Mike Pence then cast the tie-breaking vote.
It was the first time in history that a vice president needed to step in to tip the balance for a Cabinet appointee.
Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, broke with their colleagues and voted against the Michigan billionaire, who is a prolific Republican campaign donor and a proponent of vouchers and charter school expansion. They cited her shaky performance in her confirmation hearing before the Senate HELP Committee, of which they are members, and said their offices had been inundated with thousands of calls, faxes, and emails.
Activists tried to sway more Republican senators, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, to tip the balance against DeVos. But Toomey, who received more than $60,000 from DeVos in contributions to his political campaign, was unmoved despite demonstrations at his offices around the state. He declared his support of DeVos just hours after a delegation of Philadelphia officeholders and activists, including City Councilwoman Helen Gym, met with his staff on Wednesday.
Former Secretary of Education John King, the incoming executive director of the advocacy group Education Trust, challenged DeVos to "prove wrong" concerns that she will seek to dismantle public education. Education Trust’s main mission is for educational policies that will close the racial and ethnic achievement gap among students.
Reaction from the two major national teachers’ unions, which adamantly opposed her nomination, was defiant and swift. National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García said that because of the close vote and the bipartisan opposition, DeVos has no mandate.
“Americans across the nation drove a bipartisan repudiation of the Trump-DeVos agenda for students and public education," said García in a statement. "Today’s outcome marks only the beginning of the resistance. Students, educators, parents, civil rights, and special education advocates — along with millions of Americans — are speaking loud and clear: We are here to stay. … We will protect public education.
“No other Trump Cabinet nominee garnered the level of public opposition as Betsy DeVos, and no other time in our nation’s history has a vice president of the United States stepped in to cast the deciding vote on a nomination."
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said the "silver lining" is the increased visibility of the pro-public school cause. She concluded that this is "a sad day for children."
"The public in public education has never been more visible or more vocal, and it is not going back in the shadows," Weingarten said in a statement. "This same public — from rural towns to urban centers, from liberals to conservatives — will now serve as a check and balance, and they will be fierce fighters on behalf of children. I am honored to be a soldier in that movement for children."
DeVos opposes teachers’ unions, frequently saying that they are only interested in adult issues and not what’s best for children. She named her lobbying group American Federation for Children in an apparent dig at the AFT.
Weingarten countered that "DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives; and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school. If she wants to work with the educators who work hard every single day — in districts as diverse as McDowell County, West Virginia, Detroit, and Scarsdale, New York — to provide children the opportunities they deserve, we renew our invitation to have her visit America’s public schools and see the strategies that work for kids."
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called DeVos "dangerously unqualified" and said the Senate "willfully disregarded" the wishes of millions of citizens.
"Betsy DeVos has no experience with, and stunningly little knowledge of, the issues and challenges that face our public schools. Worse, she is a pro-privatization activist, who has spent millions of dollars to undermine public education. By confirming her nomination, the GOP members of the Senate have demonstrated that they value deep pockets and an anti-public school ideology over the needs of America’s schoolchildren."
City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who led local opposition to DeVos, said that the "unprecedented tie-breaker vote is a sign of our power — and it’s a signal that the nation has rejected the top-down, dark money agenda to close public schools, expand vouchers, and strip students with disabilities and students living in poverty of their hard-won civil rights. … Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump have no mandate to implement their extremist anti-public school agenda. Every step of the way we will be holding Ms. DeVos accountable as we push for the schools we need, not the schools she wishes to force on us.”
The National School Boards Association and National Alliance of Public Charter Schools issued statements of congratulations to the new secretary.
While saying the School Boards Association looks forward to working with DeVos on issues including child nutrition, career and technical education, federal education investments, and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, NSBA executive director Thomas J. Gentzel reiterated the importance of public education in his statement.
“Public education has been a fundamental part of America, preparing students for life and contributing to the nation’s prosperity," the statement said. "This is a pivotal time in public education and our nation’s school children deserve the best education possible. We must and we can enhance public education by working together to find and implement the best ideas to accomplish this."
The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools said: "We believe that Secretary DeVos will put students and families first and we look forward to working with her to ensure each child has access to a high-quality public school and a safe and supportive environment in which to learn.”
King, who worked for charter schools before becoming secretary, said that Education Trust had "expressed concerns about Betsy DeVos’ commitment to fully embracing public education and to using the full range of tools at the secretary’s disposal to protect and advance opportunity and achievement for low-income students, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities. Those concerns remain."
He noted that "large numbers of students, parents, educators, community leaders, and civil rights advocates [also insisted] that the federal role in education must be to strengthen public education — not abandon it — and to protect students’ civil rights. … As the former secretary of education, I sincerely hope that Ms. DeVos will work hard to prove these concerns wrong and will lead the Department in a manner that protects fundamental civil rights and promotes opportunity and achievement for all students."
He added that "Ed Trust will … work with and support her wherever we can find common cause and vigorously oppose any action that would undermine continued progress for the children on whose behalf we work every day.”