A Squeaker and the Squawkers: The DeVos Confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education

By Thomas W. Carroll
President, Invest in Education Coalition

Betsy DeVos’s nomination as U.S. Education Secretary may be a squeaker, as 48 Democrats in the U.S. Senate appear ready to vote as a bloc against her nomination. The minority party is responding to intense pressure from the nation’s two leading teachers unions.

As well, two Republicans who often part company with their Republican colleagues – Sue Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have announced that they will vote against the DeVos confirmation on the Senate Floor as well.

Unless someone unexpectedly changes their position, this leaves a 50-50 tie on this crucial confirmation vote. To prevail, Vice President Mike Pence will have to cast a tie-breaking vote. Under the U.S. Constitution, the Vice President also serves as President of the United States Senate.

The sway the teachers unions have over the Democratic Party is illustrated most vividly by the decision of U.S. Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey to oppose the confirmation of DeVos. Booker has long been known as one of the most articulate advocates for vouchers and charter schools, long anathema to the teachers unions. Booker also has been close to DeVos on a personal level, and has headlined events held by the pro-voucher American Federation of Children, then chaired by Betsy DeVos.

However, since his election to the U.S. Senate, the ever ambitious Booker has trimmed his sails on reform issues as he attempts to position himself as a potential Democratic candidate for President in 2020. The sight of the former Rhodes Scholar forced to dumb down his views to appeal to the teachers union does not reflect well on Booker’s leadership abilities.

When you hear DeVos’s opponents question her capabilities and explain their “no” votes in the upcoming Senate vote, it might be good to remember what some of them chose to ask her about during her recent confirmation hearing.

Their questions came across as a classic “gotcha” contest. The U.S. Senate minority party’s heaviest hitters were not nearly as interested in how best to educate America’s children as they were in carrying water for the national teachers unions and their so-called progressive allies.

No pun intended, but the desire for snarky tweet material and MSNBC-ready video clips trumped any hopes for bipartisanship. Ignored was the important topic of how to free millions of students from the truly horrific schools in which they’re trapped, especially in many of the nation’s urban areas.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a one-time Saturday Night Live skit writer and bit player, asked about conversion therapy. DeVos quickly stated she was opposed, seemingly deflating Franken, who was spoiling for a fight.

Channeling his inner Joe McCarthy, Franken also suggested that DeVos was anti-LGBT because her family had donated money to religious organizations and socially conservative groups. She assured him she “fully embrace[d] equality.”

Washington Sen. Patty Murray brought up President Trump’s sad and regrettable videotaped comments regarding women and asked if kissing and touching women without their consent was sexual assault. DeVos said yes, it was.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders grilled DeVos – who has devoted decades to improving education for lower-income urban families — on the size of her family’s political giving. He tried to goad her into agreeing to a dollar figure, asking if it was in the “ballpark” of $200 million.

Ms. DeVos, whose family’s donations generously support hospitals, district-run public schools, medical research, public higher education and many other worthy causes, said it might be.

What relevance this has to education policy, Sen. Sanders has not yet revealed.

DeVos also was asked by Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin if she would file for a capital-gains tax break applicable to appointees who must liquidate their holdings to avoid conflicts — again, totally unrelated to education policy. DeVos committed that she would not.

And so it went, Democrat senators spending their time asking totally unrelated questions while complaining that the hearing was too short.

Were she not so classy, Ms. DeVos could have made like Jack Nicholson and said, “What would you like to know next, my favorite color?”

Admittedly, Betsy DeVos is an unorthodox candidate for U.S. Secretary of Education. She hasn’t served previously as a governor, education commissioner or district superintendent.

Rather than impair her, this frees her from the education world as it is arrayed right now. DeVos, the former chairwoman of the American Federation of Children, is the nation’s No. 1 advocate for giving parents and children greater choices in education – regardless of their income or ZIP code.

The controversy comes because DeVos and the American Federation for Children support efforts to expand charter schools and private school choice, including a proposal in New York that my organization favors. These greater options are favored overwhelmingly by parents, especially from low-income and middle-class families, but are vehemently opposed by the teachers unions.

“I will be a crusader for parents and students and the quality of their education, not for specific arrangements of how school is delivered,” Ms. DeVos said when asked about defending the status quo and existing funding schemes for traditional education.

At this point, it appears the Vice President will cast a tie-breaking vote, confirming Betsy DeVos as the next U.S. Secretary of Education and a refreshing voice in the debate over how to give America’s children the best possible education.

No matter what ex-comedians and status-quo defenders say.

Thomas W. Carroll is President of the Invest in Education Coalition