WASHINGTON | Charter school advocate Betsy DeVos won confirmation as U.S. Education secretary Tuesday by the slimmest of margins, pushed to approval only by the historic tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence.
Two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, joined Democrats in a marathon effort to derail the nomination of the wealthy Republican donor. The Senate historian said Pence's vote was the first by a vice president to break a 50-50 tie on a Cabinet nomination.
Despite the win, DeVos emerged bruised from the highly divisive nomination fight. Opposed by half the Senate, she faced criticism, even ridicule for lack of experience and confusion during her confirmation hearing. At one point, she said some schools should have guns because of the threat of grizzly bears.
And there has been scathing opposition from teachers unions and civil rights activists over her support of charter schools and her conservative religious ideology.
Rapid City schools Superintendent Lori Simon said DeVos' confirmation raises worries about public funds being diverted from public school students.
"Like many of my colleagues in public education across the nation, the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education is concerning to me. Not only does she have no work experience with K-12 public education, policy, and law, she has a long record of pushing policies that undermine public education," Simon said in an email. "Public education always has been and always will be the backbone of our country, and I am concerned that we may see funds diverted away from our students.
"With that being said, like Secretary DeVos, I do believe public education needs to improve, and recognize the need for change in order to improve outcomes for our students starting right here in Rapid City," Simon said. "I am going to reserve judgement at this time and wait to see how her leadership impacts our students and our schools. In the meantime, I will continue to advocate for public education at the local, state, and national level."
President Donald Trump accused Democrats of seeking to torpedo education progress. In a tweet before the vote, he wrote, "Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!" Pence tweeted later in the day that supporting DeVos was "a vote for every child having a chance at a world-class education."
She now takes the helm of a department charged with implementing laws affecting the nation's public schools with no direct experience with traditional public schools. Her opponents noted that she has no experience running public schools, nor has she attended one or sent her children to one
She also will have to address several hot-button issues in higher education, such as rising tuition costs, growing student debt and the troubled for-profit colleges, many of which have closed down, leaving students with huge loans and without a good education or job prospects.
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Close attention also will be paid to how DeVos deals with sexual assault and freedom of speech on campuses.
Ahead of Tuesday's vote, emotions ran high as constituents jammed senators' phone lines. Protesters gathered outside the Capitol, including one person in a grizzly bear costume to ridicule DeVos.
Democrats and labor unions vigorously fought the nomination, suggesting that DeVos would defund traditional public schools by diverting taxpayers' money to charter and private institutions. They cited her financial interest in organizations pushing for charter schools, though she has said she will divest those interests.
Collins and Murkowski said they feared her focus on charter schools will undermine remote public schools in their states.
"President Trump's swamp got a new billionaire today," the Democratic National Committee said in a statement. "Millions of teachers, parents and students could not have made their opposition to Betsy DeVos' confirmation any clearer — they do not want someone whose only education experience is dismantling public schools."
DeVos supporters, however, saw her confirmation as an occasion to breathe new life into a troubled American school system and a chance to shift power from Washington to the local level.
"She has been a leader in the movement for public charter schools — the most successful reform of public education during the last 30 years," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Education Committee. "And she has worked tirelessly to help low-income children have more choices of better schools."
DeVos has her work cut out.
"She will have to make it a priority to reach out to educators and education policy makers to reassure them that she is committed to working to improve education for all students including the vast majority who attend and will continue to attend traditional public schools," said Martin West, associate professor of education at Harvard University. "My view is that she is committed to doing that."
In addition to DeVos, Republicans hope to confirm a series of other divisive nominees this week: Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, GOP Rep. Tom Price of Georgia as health secretary and financier Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary.