USA Education First Look

Vice President Mike Pence breaks tied Senate vote in DeVos confirmation (+video)

The vice president cast a historic, record-breaking tie vote in the Senate for the cabinet confirmation.

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee during the confirmation hearing for secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 17, 2017.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters | Caption

The US Senate on Tuesday confirmed Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education, despite unrelenting opposition from the Democratic minority.

The controversial nomination of Ms. DeVos drew opposition from the entire Democratic minority in the Senate, joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Angus King (I) of Maine, as well as two Senate Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The 50-50 split necessitated a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, the first time that a vice president has been required to resolve a tie over a cabinet nomination.

In the final lead-up to the senatorial vote, the Democratic minority occupied the floor overnight in order to voice their unrelenting opposition.

Ms. DeVos's strong support of school choice and lack of personal experience with the public school system have made her one of the most controversial of President Trump's appointments.

DeVos’s nomination drew the strongest criticism from labor unions, rights groups, and teaching organizations over her outspoken support of charter schools, which are alternative educational institutions established by parents, teachers, and community members outside of the public school system that still receive government funding.

Proponents of charter schools, such as DeVos, see qualities such as autonomy and innovation as major upsides for students who don’t traditionally excel in the public school system. As Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington explained in an interview with NPR, “what they're trying to do is to create options for students who've been in public schools and haven't done well.”

But to many public school advocates, charter schools represent a drain on funding for traditional schools.

As Professor Hill explained, "charter schools are public schools, and the money that the states provide to educate children go to the charter schools of children transferred there." However, he continued, "Basically, there is money that used to be in the hands of the public school system that now goes to charter schools. But it's not more money, it's the same, and in some cases actually less.”

For teachers unions, that means less spending money for traditional schools – a major sticking point for the National Education Association.

Opponents have also raised concerns about DeVos's qualifications for the position, particularly the fact that she never attended public school herself and did not send her children to public schools. They point to her privileged upbringing as demonstrative of a lack of understanding and appreciation for running the financial aid and student loan components of the Department of Education, a point of contention that Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews describes as "lazy thinking."

"Suggesting that a private school education means you can’t understand and support public schools is lazy thinking," he wrote. "The false image of out-of-touch private schools ignores the creative strength of our nation’s diverse approach to teaching children."

Still, opponents point to her lack of experience in the field of education.

In a recent opinion article published by US News & World Report titled, “Unqualified and Dangerous,” Lisette Partelow and Meg Banner of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., expressed their concerns over DeVos’s interests and qualifications regarding her proposed responsibilities as secretary of Education, namely that “far too little is known about her understanding of education law and policy, financial interests or agenda for the nation's public schools.”

“Unlike most previous education secretaries," they added, "DeVos has no record of commitment to public education as an educator, administrator or elected official.”

Similar rhetoric has been used by Democratic politicians, especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, who in a letter directed toward DeVos said, “there is no precedent for an Education Department Secretary with your lack of experience in public education.”

However, advocates for DeVos’s nomination see her perceived lack of experience as a positive harbinger for change within the US Department of Education.

President Trump referred to his nominee in November as “a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” according to the Associated Press, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, himself a former education Secretary and chairman of the committee that approved DeVos, told The New York Times that she would be “an excellent education secretary.”

“She’s committed to public education, and there’s no better example of that than her work on the most important reform of public schools in the last 30 years: public charter schools,” said Senator Alexander.