WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos on Tuesday as education secretary, approving the embattled nominee only with the help of a historic tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.
The 51-to-50 vote elevates Ms. DeVos — a wealthy donor from Michigan who has devoted much of her life to expanding educational choice through charter schools and vouchers, but has limited experience with the public school system — to be steward of the nation’s schools.
Two Republicans voted against Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, a sign that some members of President Trump’s party are willing to go against him, possibly foreshadowing difficulty on some of the president’s more contentious legislative priorities.
It was the first time that a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination, according to the Senate historian. Taking the gavel as the vote deadlocked at 50-50, Mr. Pence, a former member of the House, declared his vote for Ms. DeVos before announcing that Mr. Trump’s nominee for education secretary had been confirmed.
The two Republicans who voted against the nominee, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced their opposition to her last week. In back-to-back floor speeches, the lawmakers said Ms. DeVos was unqualified because of a lack of familiarity with public schools and with laws meant to protect students, despite her passion for helping them.
Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski said they had also been influenced by the thousands of messages they had received urging them to reject the nomination.
For many in the education community, Ms. DeVos’s full-throated support for charter schools and vouchers — which allow students to use taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at private, religious and for-profit schools — is emblematic of a disconnection from the realities of the education system. Neither Ms. DeVos nor any of her children attended a public school. And she has never taken out a federal student loan, which is striking when considering she will head a department that is the country’s largest provider of student loans.
Having grown up in a wealthy family and married into the Amway fortune, Ms. DeVos, who has a web of financial investments, has raised red flags among critics who worry about the many opportunities for conflicts of interest. That concern was exacerbated when she became the first of Mr. Trump’s nominees not to complete an ethics review before appearing before a Senate panel.
Despite clamorous objections to Ms. DeVos from teachers’ unions and even some charter organizations that typically oppose them, opponents nonetheless fell shy of defeating her nomination. Most Republicans described her as committed and determined to put what is best for children above all else.
In a fiery speech moments before the vote, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and a former education secretary himself, criticized his Democratic colleagues for opposing Ms. DeVos, accusing them of opposing her because she was nominated by a Republican president.
Mr. Alexander, chairman of the committee that approved Ms. DeVos’s nomination last week in a straight, party-line split, said she had been “at the forefront” of education overhaul for decades. “She led the most effective public school reform movement over the last few years,” he said.
Lacking the votes to block Ms. DeVos, Democrats realized there was little they could do. Having exhausted every legislative option to slow consideration of her nomination, Democrats held vigil in the final 24 hours before her confirmation vote, coming to the Senate floor throughout the night and into the morning to reiterate their objections.
And though they spoke mostly to a chamber empty but for a handful of clerks, pages and other staff members, Democrats pressed their absent Republican colleagues to join them, hoping for an 11th-hour defection that would derail Ms. DeVos’s nomination.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee that approved Ms. DeVos — and a former educator herself — urged disheartened colleagues and advocates on Tuesday morning not to think of their efforts as a waste.
“It’s made an impact here and made a difference,” she said. “And I think it’s woken each of us up in this country to what we value and what we want.”
Shortly after Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that protested the nomination, said the public would now have to “serve as a check and balance” to her policies and be “fierce fighters on behalf of children.”
“It’s telling that even when Trump had full control of the legislative and executive branches, he could only get DeVos confirmed by an unprecedented tiebreaking vote by his vice president,” Ms. Weingarten said. “That’s because DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools, a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives, and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school.”
David E. Kirkland, an education professor at New York University who has studied Ms. DeVos’s impact in Michigan, said he feared she could badly hurt public education across the country and pull resources out of schools in need of federal funding. “Her extensive conflicts of interest and record of diverting money away from vulnerable students and into the pockets of the rich make DeVos completely unfit for the position she was just confirmed to,” he said.
Ms. DeVos has focused on expanding parental choice in education and embracing charter schools, but also on vouchers. Her ideology was a good fit for the education platform that Mr. Trump put forward during the campaign, which called for a $20 billion voucher initiative aimed at low-income children.
But freeing such an enormous sum would most likely require the reallocation of existing federal education money, as well as a realignment of congressional priorities. Vouchers were not part of a sweeping education overhaul passed in 2015, and lawmakers from rural areas, where schools tend to be farther apart, are particularly wary of school choice initiatives… read more