WASHINGTON — As she faces what promises to be the closest vote ever for a cabinet nominee, Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s choice for education secretary, is also the most well-known — and in some sense the most notorious.
Spoofed as clueless on Saturday Night Live last weekend, she has been the subject of Internet memes and angry teacher protests nationwide since her Jan. 17 Senate confirmation hearing. Observers say the Republican mega-donor and Michigan native has tapped into anxieties about the new Trump administration — and with two key Republicans last week vowing to vote against her, she is a ripe target: the first Trump nominee who could potentially be defeated.
Democrats, who have gathered exactly 50 votes against her, need just one more to defeat her nomination Tuesday. Absent a 51st vote, Republicans must rely on Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote — the first ever for a cabinet nominee.
That possibility — plus a stormy confirmation hearing that set off critics’ doubts about DeVos’ inexperience — have generated a wave of opposition, with constituents’ calls crashing lawmakers’ voicemail systems over the past few weeks.
Opponents have even established cheeky crowd-funding sites aimed at “buying” Republican lawmakers’ votes. Organizers hope to gather enough donors to match or exceed the amount DeVos has contributed to their campaigns. One site, aimed at Sen. Pat Toomey, (R-Pa.), by Monday afternoon had raised $69,566, nearly $9,500 more than its goal.
“She is having her 15 minutes of fame — at the wrong time,” said Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank that supports school choice.
The notoriety is arriving, he said, “before she actually gets a chance to do anything.”
Trump's opponents are “angry, scared and frazzled, and they need to put that feeling somewhere,” he said. That makes DeVos an easy target.
Though most Republicans have rallied around her, several groups that advocate for students with disabilities have opposed DeVos' confirmation, saying they doubt she even understands the details of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the 1975 law that guarantees a “free appropriate public education” to disabled students.
Under intense questioning from Democrats during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, DeVos suggested that states should be able to decide whether schools must follow the law. She later said she may have been confused about IDEA’s requirements. It was, in part, DeVos’ responses on IDEA that prompted Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the two Republicans opposing her, to do so publicly.
DeVos also produced a viral moment during her hearing when she told Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) that guns might belong in schools in rural areas as protection against “potential grizzlies.”
In the Feb. 4 Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit, actress Kate McKinnon played a ditsy DeVos, who appears during a raucous news conference led by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, played in a loud, angry cameo by actress Melissa McCarthy.
Education wonks throughout Washington got a little thrill when, during the skit, a reporter asked the ersatz DeVos to distinguish between academic growth and proficiency — a version of the question had actually been lobbed at DeVos during her Senate hearing by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, an SNL veteran.
Her reply: “I don’t know anything about school, but I do think there should be a school, probably Jesus school, and I do think it should have walls and roof and guns for potential grizzlies.”
On Monday, during what Democratic lawmakers termed their “final 24 hours of debate” on DeVos’ nomination before the vote, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the HELP Committee, said, “I am not surprised that opposition to Betsy DeVos has caught fire across the country. I am not surprised that people are talking to their friends about it — writing letters to their senators — showing up to protest when they’ve never done anything like that before. Because this is about their kids.”
Petrilli estimates that about two-thirds of the public opposition to DeVos has been stoked by teachers’ unions, which have vowed to defeat her nomination. Once their millions of members became activated against her, Petrilli said, the movement took on a life of its own.
All the same, he said, “She hit so many sweet spots to people.”
She’s a billionaire mega-donor to Republican lawmakers and causes, she has no teaching or education experience and she has championed private-school vouchers and tax credits as a way of forcing public schools to compete with the private sector.
“A lot of this kind of comes together to make her 'a perfect villain,'” he said.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has called DeVos “dangerously unqualified” for the job, saying she “lacks the experience we should all demand in America’s secretary of education.”
Adding to the fray: former U. S. Education Secretary John B. King last week told Politico that he was disappointed DeVos hadn’t expressed a strong commitment to public education or strong accountability for charter schools. “People who care about public education, who care about equity, who care about civil rights, should speak out loudly,” he said. “When there seems to be a lack of clear commitment to protecting student civil rights, we’re going to speak up loudly.”
In an analysis released Monday, Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, another right-leaning D.C. think tank, found that, taken together, the three previous U.S. presidents nominated a total of just five cabinet secretaries without government experience. Trump has appointed six, including DeVos.
“It’s an unconventional way” to build a cabinet, said Smarick. “It’s a different way of prizing experience. Donald Trump doesn’t think government experience is everything.”
He noted that there’s no consensus, at least in education circles, on whether leaders with unconventional backgrounds such as DeVos bring net positive or negative traits to leading schools. But, he said, they’re “much more likely to be the big change agents” than traditional hires.
“If you were looking for dramatic change, (DeVos) has the background that would suggest that she sees things differently.”
Opponents were planning one last rally late Monday across from the U.S. Capitol., and lawmakers were slated to take up DeVos’ nomination Tuesday — actually, Republicans have delayed a vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general, ashe is one of the 50 Republicans needed to push DeVos through.
In the meantime, Petrilli, of the Fordham Institute, said he was looking online for a faux-fur bearskin rug to send to DeVos following her confirmation. The gift, he said, was intended as a way to remind her to “stay humble — and not to take herself too seriously.”