WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the nation's 11th Education secretary Tuesday in a historic vote, ending a tumultuous battle over her nomination.
DeVos, 59, has long been a polarizing figure in Michigan's political and education circles for her support of school vouchers and charter schools. In the weeks since a rocky confirmation hearing, she became a cause celebre for opponents who say she is unfit and unqualified to serve. Congressional offices were inundated with angry calls urging her to be rejected, she was the subject of angry teacher protests nationwide, and her performance as a nominee was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live.
With only two Republican members of the Senate — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — refusing to support DeVos' nomination, it left Democrats with a 50-50 tie to block her. Vice President Pence, in his role as Senate president, cast the tie-breaking vote in her favor.
"We are so so close, and this is so important," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who led opposition to DeVos, just before Tuesday's vote.
It marked the first time in U.S. history that a vice president was called upon to break a tie vote over a presidential Cabinet nomination, which are usually routine votes regardless of which party is in power: No nominee has been rejected since John Tower's nomination as Defense secretary in 1989. In order to confirm DeVos, Republicans also held off confirming Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general, needing his vote.
As secretary, DeVos takes over an agency with about 4,500 employees and a budget of about $70 billion that administers and establishes policies for federal assistance to the states for secondary schools and higher education, as well as helping to enforce federal laws involving schools.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former Education secretary and chairman of the panel that moved her nomination to the floor, praised DeVos' background, saying her support of charter schools and vouchers has helped "to give low income children the same choices wealthier families have."
"Some people don't like that," Alexander said. "Betsy DeVos has committed no more Washington mandates. ... She's led the most effective school reform movement in the last 30 years."
Some Republicans have called for the department's dissolution, arguing it is a federal intrusion into what should be a purely state and local institution. However, DeVos has vowed not only to enforce public laws but to support traditional public schools, saying she advocates for any kind of school that gives parents and students the choices they want.
DeVos said at her hearing she supports "any great school" — including public schools and those beyond what "the (public school) system thinks is best for kids, to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve."
Democrats, noting that she and her wealthy family — she is the wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos, a former Republican candidate for Michigan governor — have spent millions on behalf of conservative candidates and causes, rejected her claims. They said she had no experience as an educator, administrator or even as a parent or student in public schools. Collins and Murkowski, too, said they worried that her commitment to public schools was not great enough to earn their support, since there are few choices to public schools in their rural states.
Democrats went further. They argued that she doesn't understand the policies she'll be tasked with enforcing, noting that in her hearing she fumbled a question about a landmark 1975 law protecting education for students with disabilities, seeming unaware of the law. She also made a joke at the hearing, saying she would not necessarily support banning guns from all schools because of the potential threat from grizzly bears in some wilderness areas.
"It's not Democrats who are bitter about the election," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "It's the American people who are bitter about the nomination of Betsy DeVos." He added that she "could not answer the most fundamental questions about public education."
But even as Democrats went to the Senate floor to talk about DeVos throughout the night Monday, Republicans continued to defend her, saying her support of charter schools and school choice, if anything, suggests a secretary who is prepared to shake up traditional education.
“I have every confidence that Mrs. DeVos will lead the Department of Education in such a way as to put our students first,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday. Last week, after Collins and Murkowski announced their rejection of DeVos, other potential Republican targets quickly coalesced around her. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tweeted, "Lest there be any doubt about how I'm voting on @BetsyDeVos she had me at 'school choice' years ago."
As Republicans and DeVos' supporters argued that her support of charter schools in Michigan has led to improvements in education, Democrats and DeVos' other critics said the evidence suggests otherwise, such as in Detroit. While DeVos has said “a lot that has gone right in Detroit” because of charter schools given the level of poverty, data from Detroit Public Schools and charters schools have shown neither with particularly strong results.
A Free Press review of 2015 results on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Performance showed that 9.6% of students in the district were considered proficient on the exam, compared with 14.5% of charter schools. DeVos has also been criticized in Michigan as having helped to defeat efforts to subject charter schools to more scrutiny.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., argued against DeVos’ confirmation, saying she has “undermined efforts to regulate Michigan charters even when they’ve clearly failed” and that “her hostility toward public education disqualifies her.”
DeVos' support of school vouchers, which allow public money to follow students to the schools of their choice, and charter schools, which often operate outside the traditional neighborhood public school system, goes back decades. While supporters say they generate competition and give students and parents important educational choices, detractors say they can rob traditional public schools of support. Many Democrats support charter schools as well, however.
Follow Spangler on Twitter at @tsspangler.