Trump’s historic pick for Education Secretary

An overview of the politics surrounding Betsy DeVos’ Senate confirmation thanks to tie-breaking vote from vice-president Mike Pence

By: Benjamin Mussett

Despite a fight from Senate Democrats, Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican party donor and school-reform advocate, was confirmed as education secretary this week following a confirmation process fraught with controversy. Ms. DeVos, a previous chair of the Michigan Republican party, was barely approved after vice-president Mike Pence broke the Senate’s 50-50 tie in an historic deciding vote.

While previous vice-presidents have broken Senate ties before, Tuesday’s event represented the first instance where a vice-president has voted to ensure a cabinet member’s confirmation. The Senate came to a tie after two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against Ms. DeVos’ confirmation.

A Rocky Start

President Trump’s choice for secretary of education generated immediate resistance from Senate Democrats who claim Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the position. This assertion is due in part by her lack of experience with public education. Ms. DeVos has not attended any level of public school nor have her children.

According to Vox, Ms. DeVos’ Senate confirmation hearings bolstered Democratic claims of ineptitude. When asked for her perspective on whether student performance should be measured based on overall growth or proficiency testing, Ms. DeVos seemed confused by Senator Al Franken’s question. The Senator expressed significant concern with Ms. DeVos’ unfamiliarity. The growth versus proficiency debate has been a constant in education policy circles over the past few years.

Democrats also voiced worry over Ms. DeVos’ reported conflicts of interests as her and her family have long donated substantially to the Republican party and hold financial stakes in numerous businesses. Like President Trump, Ms. DeVos could potentially see financial reward from government decision-making she is involved in. The newly-appointed secretary drew particular disapproval for failing to complete her ethics and financial review paperwork prior to her confirmation hearings, as is tradition.

At one point during her hearings, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked Ms. DeVos if she believed she would have been nominated “if [her] family had not not made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party.”

The moment from the hearings which arguably drew the most public attention, however, was when Ms. DeVos suggested that the presence of guns in schools may be necessary in some cases “to protect from potential grizzlies.”

The Public vs. Private Debate

“She led the most effective public school reform movement over the last few years,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and former education secretary, in response to Democratic criticism. The appointment of Ms. DeVos has once again raised the common education debate over whether government should prioritize public education or increase support for the private option.

Indeed, Ms. DeVos has been an avid supporter of private education, advocating for more charter schools and an emphasis on voucher programs. Voucher programs allow parents to divert taxpayer dollars away from public education in order to pay for their child to attend private or religious schools instead. Charter schools, on the other hand, receive public funding, but operate autonomously. According to The Economist, advocates of vouchers and charter schools, like Ms. DeVos, believe they grant parents more choice in their child’s education and, further, allow lower-income students in areas with poor public schools to receive a better education through private schooling.

However, critics claim numerous problems with such programs. In an op-ed for The Hill, Jerusha Conner, a Villanova professor specializing in education, argued that voucher programs actually “exacerbate educational inequality.” According to Conner, vouchers “drain” much-needed funding from the public education system and give it to wealthy private schools, “creating even more of an imbalanced, two tiered system.” Conner also contended that the money voucher programs provide is typically not enough to actually cover tuition costs, nor are lower-income students guaranteed to be accepted into private schools.

Another Controversial Choice

The circumstances of Ms. DeVos’ confirmation as secretary of education were unprecedented, however the unusual has so far proven to be the norm in Trump’s administration. The president has chosen to defy longheld practices, breaking diplomatic protocol by speaking with the president of Taiwan and his refusing to release his tax returns.  

He has also made a habit of appointing controversial cabinet members and White House staff, often roiling both media commentators and his Democratic counterparts. Moreover, Trump appears to prefer placing individuals in charge of departments they have previously challenged.

For instance, Scott Pruitt, an attorney general from Oklahoma, is Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which Mr. Pruitt has sued 14 times; some of these suits are ongoing. Similarly, Rick Perry (governor of Texas from 2000 to 2015) who is slated to be secretary of energy, once called for the department he will soon be running to be closed altogether. In equal measure, Ms. Devos, a long-time private school advocate, will soon be making key decisions on public education.

In 2016, many voted for Donald Trump because they were fed up with what they perceived as status quo politics.Consistent with this “outsider” brand, a number of Trump’s cabinet nominations, like him, have no previous political experience. Most appear ready to roll back the legacy former president Barack Obama worked to construct over the past eight years.

While these picks cause Democrats consternation, to the president’s base, they may fulfill a crucial, albeit vague, campaign promise: “drain the swamp.” For Trump, the beauty of such a promise lies in its ambiguity.

With files from the New York Times, Business Insider, Vox, CNN, Mother Jones, The Economist, The Hill and the Guardian.