By a vote of 51-50 (Republican Senators Collins of Maine and Murkowski of Alaska voted against, Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote), Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the next US Secretary of Education. Who exactly is Betsy DeVos, why is she so controversial, and what can we expect under her tenure?
DeVos is a Republican from Michigan, and has been heavily involved in school choice advocacy in recent years. She previously served as a National Committeewoman for the GOP, and as chair of the Michigan GOP on two separate occasions. She is a member of the board for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and had previously been the Chairman of the Board for the Alliance for School Choice, a charter school advocacy group based in Washington DC. Her involvement in supporting school choice has made her a very controversial pick, especially among members of teachers unions and their supporters. Detractors have slammed her for not attending any public schools in her life, as well as not having any educational experience (she has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and political science from Calvin College in Michigan). Supporters say that her advocacy for school choice is a reason to support her, saying that expanding the options of charter schools and school voucher programs will open up the same educational opportunity to disadvantaged youth that already exist for people from families with more money via school choice, and that her not being in the pocket of teachers unions will bring more opportunity than has previously existed.
All of that being set aside, her confirmation was historic, and hardfought. She is the third woman to serve as the Secretary of Education, and the eleventh person overall. The road to confirmation was long and hard. Trump announced her as his pick for the role in late November, and there has been controversy in the news nearly daily about her. The vote to move her confirmation out of committee and to a full floor vote barely passed with it being a straight partisan vote, and the floor vote was the first time in history that a Vice President had to cast a tie-breaking vote on a cabinet confirmation, and the first time the VP cast a tie-breaker since Dick Cheney in 2008. It was not clear if she would pass, as the Democrats, teamed up with Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, only needed to swing one more vote to sink the confirmation. Heavy lobbying was done on both sides, with school choice advocates and think tanks on the side moving to confirm her, and teachers unions and other supporters of traditional public schools on the other side trying to sink the nomination.
So what lies ahead under a Secretary DeVos Education Department? Well, we can expect to see Common Core scrapped at the federal level, as well as more Federal incentives for charter school and school voucher programs. She has said that she wants to shake up the status quo, so there is the possibility that teachers unions will have less of an impact of Department of Education policy under her tenure. However, her lack of experience as an educator and the lack of any degrees in education, as well as lack of direct policy making experience, will mean that she will have to surround herself with people who have more expertise in education, so that leaves the future a little bit hazier. What we can expect, overall, is more noise being made from both teachers unions and school choice advocates, a scrapping of common core, and a roll back of the power of the Department of Education overall and their programs