Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has been a lavish campaign contributor to Republican causes and candidates, squeaked through to confirmation as Education Secretary with a barely passing grade.
Senate Democrats, including Hawaii’s two senators, staged an overnight talk-a-thon to try to block her confirmation, but at noon on Tuesday Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in her favor. It was the first time a vice president had to step in to salvage the candidacy of a proposed cabinet nominee.
The final vote was 51 to 50. All the Democrats in the Senate voted against her. They were joined by two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Amy Perruso of Diamond Head, who teaches social studies at Mililani High School, was one of the people in Hawaii who worked hard to try to prevent DeVos’s confirmation.
“She could do a lot of damage,” said Perruso, who came to Washington, D.C., in late January for the women’s march and then stayed to lobby her senators about why DeVos was a poor choice to lead the Department of Education. “It will cause civic fragmentation.”
Perruso, who comes from a family of educators, said she felt compelled to travel to DC for the march and to oppose DeVos because she believes it is essential to speak up for children. The trip cost her “thousands” of dollars, she said, but she said she believes the nation’s future is at risk in a Trump administration.
“For me, it’s not just about Trump,” she said. “It’s about the kinds of policies that will change lives.”
Perruso said that since returning home she has kept up the pressure by writing letters to Hawaii’s congressional delegation and asking them to take a strong line against the confirmation.
Hawaii’s senators said that they had received thousands of letters from constituents like Perruso opposing DeVos’ confirmation. In her Senate testimony, Sen. Mazie Hirono quoted from two such letters, saying that the writers did not believe DeVos was qualified for the position.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from thousands of Hawaii residents concerned about voting for an Education Secretary who clearly does not believe in our nation’s public schools,” said Hirono in a statement. Hirono is a graduate of Hawaii public schools.
Schatz spoke for about an hour late Monday night, speaking between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., along with dozens of other Democrats.
“Public education gives everyone an opportunity to pursue the American dream,” Schatz said in a tweet on Monday. “Betsy DeVos doesn’t get it. I’m voting no.”
Schatz’s office has been flooded with calls and letters of opposition to Trump’s nominees. The office did not receive a single letter supporting DeVos, according to Schatz’s staff.
Schatz attended the private Punahou School in Honolulu and later taught there.
On Tuesday, Schatz intended to participate in a similar all-night event to try to block the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, as Attorney General, the top law enforcement position in the U.S. government. Session’s confirmation vote was delayed so that he could provide one of the critical final votes for DeVos’s confirmation.
DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party whose husband is an heir to the Amway fortune, is an avid supporter of vouchers to help families pay the cost of private school. She is also a strong advocate of charter schools. People who support strong public schools say that these kinds of programs undermine social and financial support for public schools, and cause them to deteriorate. Supporters of vouchers and charters say they give poor children some of the same advantages that wealthy children already receive because their parents can afford to send them to private school.
In nominating DeVos, Trump said she had “spent decades advocating for school choice reforms and helping underserved children gain access to quality education.”
In a statement, Vice President Pence said he was proud to vote for DeVos because he believes that many public schools are failing their students, and that children in less affluent areas have fewer educational opportunities than children in wealthier areas.
“The President and I agree that our children’s futures should not be determined by their zip code,” Pence said. “Students should not be trapped in a system that puts the status quo ahead of a child’s success.”
But a fellow Republican took the opposite position. In a statement Wednesday on the Senate floor, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said she had received reassurances from DeVos that she would not support any federal legislation mandating that states adopt vouchers, nor would she condition federal funding on the presence of voucher programs in those states. Nevertheless, Collins said she believed DeVos was unfamiliar with the difficult problems confronted by public schools, and decided to vote against her.
“She appears to view education through the lens of her experience in promoting alternatives to public education in Detroit and other cities where she has, no doubt, done valuable work,” Collins said. “Her concentration on charter schools and vouchers, however, raises the question of whether or not she fully appreciates that the Secretary of Education’s primary focus must be on helping states and communities, parents, teachers, school board members and administrators strengthen our public schools.”
Perruso said that although DeVos succeeded in taking the top job in the federal education department, she believed that the battle had helped educators better explain the issues at stake for public schools.
“Frankly, I think that, while disappointing, her nomination and the battle over her confirmation help to clarify the lines of the fight,” Perruso said in an email to Civil Beat. “I think this creates more space and energy for clarification of what we seek in our public education. We are back to the question of the purposes of public education.”
She also said that DeVos’ transparent advocacy for affluent parents also underscores the difference between the Democrat and Republican parties.
“The line taken by the Republican leadership is so reactionary and so detrimental to working class families that we are sure to see more opportunities to organized across ordinary divisions,” she said.
The federal role in education policy in the United States is fairly limited. Less than 10 percent of funding for primary and secondary schools comes from federal sources; public schools are overwhelmingly funded on the state level, mostly through property taxes.