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How Betsy DeVos became Trump’s most controversial nominee

Trump's Selection For Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Testifies During Her Senate Confirmation Hearing
Betsy DeVos at her Senate hearing on January 17.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Vice President Mike Pence broke a Senate tie to confirm Betsy DeVos, 51-50, as the next education secretary, after a contentious process that made her Trump’s most divisive nominee.

So the thousands of Americans who called their senators begging them to vote against DeVos, in the end, aren’t going to get what they want. The Senate Democrats who stayed up all night arguing that she would be a disaster as education secretary were stymied too.

But that doesn’t mean the opposition failed utterly. The public outcry against DeVos made her the most controversial education secretary nominee in history, and the first member of the Cabinet to need the vice president’s support just to be confirmed.

This level of opposition is unprecedented for education secretary nominees, who usually sail through the Senate confirmation process with little pushback. But DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor with scant experience with traditional public schools, has sparked an overwhelming response from activists, who have flooded the Senate switchboard with calls and showed up to protests in at least three cities over the weekend.

“I have heard from thousands — truly thousands — of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “They've contacted me by phone, by e-mail, in person, and their concerns center, as mine do, on Mrs. DeVos's lack of experience with public education and the lack of knowledge that she portrayed in her confirmation hearing.”

DeVos might seem like an unlikely target for the furor. She will wield far less power than the leaders of more important departments, such as the Treasury secretary or secretary of defense. She won’t even have that much control over American education, since most decisions about schools are still made at the state and local level.

But unlike the other nominees, DeVos’s confirmation hearing was a true catastrophe — it raised doubts about her competence, not just her policy platform and political affiliations. For a brief moment, the fight seemed like one Democrats had a real chance of winning.

Betsy DeVos’s hearing was a disaster

Given DeVos’s history, she was bound to encounter opposition from a well-networked, well-organized group — public school teachers — almost from the start.

That’s because her major involvement with education has been as a strong supporter of school vouchers, which allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition. Vouchers aren’t particularly popular with the public at large, but they’re especially loathed by teachers and their unions, who have been against DeVos from the beginning.

Her lack of experience in education alarmed teachers who weren’t union activists, too. Educators 4 Excellence, a teachers’ group that splits with union positions on issues like merit pay, found that 91 percent of its members opposed DeVos. Their questions for the prospective education secretary were pointed: “What will you do to support public schools?” asked Meghan Morrison, a teacher in Minnesota. “I am not against a parent’s right to choose a school for their child, but as public schools are the reality, what steps will you take to help all the children in our country achieve success?”

The rest of DeVos’s biography could have been calculated to alarm progressives on a wide range of issues, from money in politics to LGBTQ rights. She’s a billionaire Republican donor who has given money to 17 sitting senators. Her parents and father-in-law were major donors to groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, and DeVos was listed on charity paperwork as a vice president at her parents’ foundation when some of those gifts were made. (She said it was a clerical error.) Amid concern about Trump’s conflicts of interest, DeVos’s hearing was scheduled before her ethics paperwork was complete.

Still, when her confirmation hearing began, she seemed overwhelmingly likely to be confirmed.

Then the hearing itself turned out to be a catastrophe. When Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook massacre killed 20 children in 2013, asked if guns had any place in schools, DeVos tried to argue that gun policy should be determined at the state and local level. A rural school in Wyoming, she said, might need a gun “to protect from potential grizzlies.”

This made slightly more sense in context — Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi had apparently told her about a rural school with a fence to keep grizzly bears out — but not much. DeVos’s bizarre response went viral.

But the most crucial moment in the hearing, at least where senators themselves were concerned, came in response to questions about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees a public education to students with disabilities. DeVos seemed unfamiliar with the basics of the law and later admitted she had been “confused.” Combined with a stumbling response to a question about how to best measure students’ learning, it suggested she knew little about the basic functions of the department she sought to lead.

Reports from the hearing spread across social media. Teachers’ opposition to DeVos meant a skeptical audience was already primed to pay attention and share widely — and there are 3 million teachers in America. The clips of DeVos fumbling questions then met with a wider audience of progressives determined to oppose Trump. It confirmed opponents’ view of DeVos as “the ultimate pay-to-play person,” unqualified for her role beyond her billions in donation, as Laura Moser put it.

Moser runs Daily Action, a system that coordinates resistance to Trump through concerned calls to elected officials. She directed her followers to call their members of Congress and oppose DeVos, and said one post about the education secretary nominee was seen by 300,000 people in the span of just a few hours.

But the most damaging part of the hearing might have been that it sowed doubts among previously friendly Republican senators — doubts that were reinforced by their constituents.

Calls poured in, and senators listened

When senators described the response to DeVos’s nomination at a committee vote Tuesday, they didn’t mince words. “Bombarded,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). “Avalanche,” said Connecticut’s Murphy. “Inundated,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). “My wife gets calls,” said Richard Burr (R-NC). “My son gets calls on cellphones to deliver a message to me.”

So Democrats from even Trump-friendly states lined up against DeVos, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who supports other Trump nominees, and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. Seven Democrats haven’t explicitly said how they’ll vote, but Sen. Al Franken told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Democrats would unite to oppose DeVos, and the vote in committee divided along party lines.

Quietly, behind the scenes, Republican senators also expressed concern. Collins sent a letter to DeVos seeking assurance that she wouldn’t try to impose a federal voucher program nationwide, she said Tuesday. Murkowski asked for the same assurance, as well as that DeVos would carry out education laws as written and that she would visit Alaska. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, apparently asked her to further explain her position on educating students with disabilities.

DeVos answered those questions. But the answers weren’t enough, Murkowski suggested, to outweigh her constituents’ concerns. “I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of education who’s been so involved in one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she might be unaware of what is broken in our education system and how to fix it,” she said.

Collins was unequivocal: "I simply cannot support her confirmation.”

Still, efforts to get one more Republican to join them failed. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) was under pressure, including phone calls and protests, to vote no, but his spokeswoman said Wednesday he thought DeVos was a “great pick,” the Philly Voice reported.

Americans don’t usually get this worked up about education. But DeVos might have struck a chord because education is a subject that many people take personally — and one that affects even white, upper-middle-class people who dislike Trump but aren’t as personally affected by his other policies.

While Americans are lukewarm on the quality of education nationally, they’re generally fond of their own public schools. “Education’s very personal for people,” Moser said. “We went to a school, or we had kids in school. … We know what it means never to have set foot into a public school and to take money from public schools.”