by Félix Pérez
It was a mild weekday afternoon in February 2017, and the U.S. Senate, on whose grounds thousands of educators, parents and others were holding a boisterous rally, was at the epicenter of a political earthquake that had been building for more than two months. The reason for the high political drama: the pending Senate vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.
When the dust had settled — after dozens of rallies nationwide, more than a million emails, texts, letters and phone calls, and countless lobby visits by educators and others to senate offices — DeVos was confirmed by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a historic tie-breaking vote.
Among the elected officials who were steadfast in their opposition to DeVos, despite arm-twisting by the Trump administration, was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota. Even while representing a state in which 63 percent of residents voted for Trump, Heitkamp cast a ‘no’ vote. “North Dakota students and teachers deserve better—it’s that simple,” said Heitkamp. “After hearing serious, vocal concerns from thousands of North Dakotans, I cannot support putting Betsy DeVos in charge of public schools in our state and across the country.”
Heitkamp continued, “During her Senate hearing, Ms. DeVos could not deliver responses to basic education policy questions, or commit to supporting the future of public education. Her refusal and lack of awareness of laws on the books protecting every students’ access to a quality education – including for students with disabilities – signaled a level of disregard for the sacred opportunity of public education. Our kids are counting on us to confirm an education secretary who will strengthen public school system that tells them, ‘no matter where you come from, if you work hard – you can achieve’ – not one who will privatize, defund, and crush that chance.”
Heitkamp is locked in a close race against Ken Cramer, a congressman who has taken $21,600 from the DeVos family and received an ‘F’ on the National Education Association’s legislative Report Card. Cramer, a supporter of private school vouchers who voted against restoring funding to after-school centers and in support of eliminating funding for class size reduction, has made news recently for the wrong reasons. This month, the two-term congressman questioned whether the sexual assault accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh should be grounds for disqualifying him — even if true. In June, Cramer compared the internment camp cages where immigrant children are detained to the chain-link fences found around playgrounds and baseball diamonds.
Heitkamp’s support for public education separates her from Cramer. Here are some examples:
- North Dakota educators honor her support. North Dakota United, a union of 11,500 public educators and employees, presented Heitkamp its Adrian R. Dunn Friend of Education award, one of its two highest honors. “Growing up in the small, rural town of Mantador, I personally understand how valuable a public education is, especially for students in rural communities,” said Heitkamp. “One of my guiding principles in the U.S. Senate is that we must all look up so that we aren’t just thinking about the day-to-day work, but rather looking to the future we are creating for our children, so we are setting them up for success. We need to strengthen and support our public-school system and help every student thrive – and I’ll keep working toward those goals.”
- Leads bipartisan effort to expand higher education access. Heitkamp is leading a bipartisan group of senators in calling on DeVos to make sure TRIO participants— including more than 4,500 North Dakotans— can take advantage of the program’s financial assistance to receive an affordable education. “The TRIO students I meet are among North Dakota’s best and brightest. . . And they shouldn’t face additional obstacles along the way to their degrees— instead, the federal government should do what it can to make it easier for them to receive the support and financial assistance they need,” said Heitkamp. TRIO programs provide low-income, first-generation, or disabled students support, financial resources and guidance.
- Encourages young people to enter teaching, other public service careers. Heitkamp introduced a bill to encourage more young men and women in rural America to enter public service professions by waiving interest on their federal student loans and expanding federal loan forgiveness. “Millennials are racking up disproportionately high levels of student debt, and the earnings of recent college graduates haven’t kept up with the costs of steep loan and interest payments. . .,” said Heitkamp. “Public servants often sacrifice a higher salary somewhere else to stay in our communities and keep them strong and safe. I’m proud to strengthen the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program’s benefits for teachers, nurses, and other professionals.”