Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tie-breaking vote in the Senate today to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. The count passed 51-50, with only Republican support. 48 Democrats and two Republicans (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) voted against DeVos.
It’s worth noting that the two Republicans who voted against DeVos were both from rural states, areas that would not benefit from DeVos’ heavy emphasis on “school choice”. For a really great understanding of education, I’ll link the New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast—the episode today centered around DeVos, with commentary from NYT education reporter Dana Goldstein. Very informative and quick.
Betsy DeVos isn’t new to the education scene. She’s a prominent philanthropist from Michigan who is a strong advocate for “school choice.” That means promoting charter schools and voucher-funded private schools as alternatives to public schools. On a personal level, she or her children never attended public schools nor took student loans. But to just dismiss her as entirely ignorant of education is not technically correct.
Something that “The Daily” touched upon was DeVos’ “school choice” policy. It would divert more federal funds from public schools to charter schools and voucher-funded private schools (a government voucher which uses public funds to be used as tuition for private schools). An issue, and one that is reflected in the “no” votes from Republican Senators Murkowski and Collins, is that some (particularly rural) areas do not have multiple schools from which to choose from. They might only have the one, traditional public school. So when funds are taken from public schools and funneled into these alternatives, that affects people who don’t have a choice in what school their kids can reasonably attend.
DeVos’ lack of familiarity with the particular policies of the public school system is what rubbed so many people the wrong way. She would not give a definite answer as to whether or not schools receiving federal funding should be held to meet a certain standard. She was unclear about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Law, which was a federal law that required students with disabilities receive an education specifically tailored to their needs. She, in an attempt to pivot, said that it would be up to the states to decide—(it’s already been decided; and it’s a federal law)—which Tim Kaine did not like.
DeVos is also a controversial choice because she did not complete her ethics review before the beginning of her confirmation hearing. Ethics reviews aim to eliminate or resolve any potential conflicts of interest, something particularly relevant to DeVos, who is a billionaire with multiple business holdings and investments. According to The Hill, DeVos maintained her interest in her and her husband’s investment group—one of the investments they made was in a company that claimed to have helped thousands of children with ADHD.
Pence’s tiebreaking vote is the first of its kind, with the Republicans unable to keep their narrow majority (they possess 52 of the 100 Senate seats) after the two aforementioned Republican senators voted against DeVos. According to the Washington Post, this is the first time a Vice President—who is the President of the United States Senate, something I learned from Veep and confirmed just now—has used his official power as tiebreaker to confirm a Cabinet nominee. It is also the first time in nine years (since Dick Cheney) that a VP has cast any sort of tiebreaking vote.