by Tim Walker
A thousand educators, parents, students, civil rights activists and U.S. senators assembled across from the U.S. Capitol yesterday evening to urge “just one more” senator to stand up and cast the deciding ‘no’ vote on Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Coming on the eve of the confirmation vote, the rally was the final exclamation point of a nationwide mobilization against a nominee whom educators consider dangerously unqualified to lead our public schools.
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The effort to defeat DeVos went into overdrive last week when GOP Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, due to the overwhelming response from educators, parents and community members in their states, announced they would be breaking ranks with their party.
With all 48 Democrats already united against her, DeVos was suddenly hanging by a thread. Only one more GOP vote was needed.
In the end, however, that last ‘no’ vote proved elusive. DeVos was confirmed today when Vice President Mike Pence cast a vote to break the 50-50 deadlock ─ the first time in the nation’s history this action was necessary to approve a cabinet nominee.
Despite the disappointing outcome, the mobilization against DeVos shook Capitol Hill and the White House.
Said Utah elementary school teacher and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García:
In my years as a public education advocate, I have never witnessed this level of public outcry. The nomination has touched a raw nerve not only with public education advocates like me but with the general public as well.
The level of engagement ─ which ran deep and across party lines ─ was nothing short of astounding.
Educators, parents and allies sent 1.1 million letters and made more than 80,000 phone calls in four weeks, urging senators to vote no. Opposition swelled nationally, and senators reported that the three days ending last week resulted in the most calls to the Capitol switchboard in history.
“Americans across the nation drove a bipartisan repudiation of the Trump-DeVos agenda for students and public education,” remarked Eskelsen García after the vote. “This marks only the beginning of the resistance.”
DeVos is the first secretary of education with zero experience with public schools. She’s never been a teacher or a school administrator, nor served on any public board of education.
More disqualifying, however, is her long, well-established record of trying to dismantle the public education system she is now charged with overseeing. The billionaire DeVos family, mega political donors, has led the charge for privatization in their home state of Michigan and in other states by bankrolling multiple efforts to bring voucher schemes and unregulated charter schools.
It was DeVos’s long record of anti-public education activism that triggered swift and immediate opposition to her nomination. The already strong opposition grew into an avalanche after DeVos’s widely panned appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. DeVos’s glaring lack of knowledge about core education issues was on full display, including unfamiliarity with the basic tenets of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act.
“The fact that the nominee for secretary of education did not know how the federal government protects special education students is infuriating,” Henoch Hailu, an educator from Maryland, told the protesters on Monday.
DeVos also refused to rule out cutting public school funding to pay for school vouchers, and she shocked many when she hedged on upholding the 2011 Title IX guidance as it relates to sexual assault on college campuses. Her bizarre response to a question about gun violence that firearms should be allowed in schools to protect students from grizzly bears became a popular internet meme.
While the spiraling concerns over DeVos weren’t enough to deliver the 51st vote necessary to defeat the nomination, there’s little doubt that DeVos emerges weakened. As Politico reported last week:
Historically, education secretaries have seized the secretary’s bully pulpit and traveled around the nation to promote their ideas. But that may be more challenging for DeVos…. Her poor performance during her confirmation hearing reinforced concerns about her lack of conventional classroom experience and commitment to public schools.
But the confirmation battle exposed not only DeVos’s lack of qualifications and preparedness, but also her extreme ideology. As secretary of education, DeVos will for the first time face a new, previously unfamiliar constraint: accountability.
“America is speaking out. The level of energy is palpable,” said Eskelsen García. “We are going to watch what Betsy DeVos does. And we are going to hold her accountable for the actions and decisions she makes on behalf of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s public schools.”