On February 7, 2017, a historic tie-breaking vote confirmed Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education.
Two Republicans voted against DeVos’s confirmation—Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—but other than that, the vote fell completely along party lines, with 46 Democrats and two Independents voting against, and 50 Republicans voting in favor of DeVos.
Collins and Murkowski announced that they wouldn’t be voting for DeVos, and both said that in addition to their own reservations about DeVos’s qualifications, they were influenced by the “thousands of messages” they had received urging them to reject DeVos.
Because the Senate came to a tie, Vice President Mike Pence, in his role as President of the Senate, was called in to make the tie-breaking vote. According to the Senate historian, this is the first time a vice president has ever been called in to break a tie on a cabinet nominee vote. Pence declared his vote for DeVos and then announced that she had been confirmed.
DeVos had faced vocal opposition from teachers’ unions and, surprisingly given her history of being a charter school advocate, even some charter school groups.
She has indicated that her goal is to expand parental choice in education, which includes charter schools and vouchers that would allow students to federal money to pay tuition at private, religious, and for-profit schools.
The school reforms DeVos backed in her home state of Michigan favored for-profit charter schools, and her American Federation for Children favors vouchers and so-called “tax credit scholarships,” which allow companies to offset tax liability by donating to scholarship funds at private schools. Private schools also include religious schools. In Florida, one of 25 states that have tax credit scholarship programs, 70 percent of those dollars went to religious schools.
However, the federal role in public education is actually quite small, and therefore, DeVos’s ability to make changes in K-12 education is similarly small. Less than 10 percent of the money used to run the nation’s public schools comes from the federal budget, and the Every Student Succeeds Act actually gave more authority to the states to identify and remedy failing schools.
There are some significant issues in the higher education field, and this is where DeVos’s influence might cause some major changes. First of all, the Higher Education Act of 1965, which governs the administration of federal student aid programs, is up for reauthorization, a process it undergoes with little fanfare every five years. But with DeVos in the EdSec seat, there is the potential for changes to federal student aid programs.
In addition, DeVos said she would “review” the gainful employment rule, which requires colleges to demonstrate that they are preparing a significant percentage of their students for the job market. This rule is primarily directed at for-profit colleges, which the Obama administration went after with allegations of fraud and predatory lending.
DeVos also said in her hearing that it would be “premature” to say whether or not she would uphold a 2011 ruling that Title IX’s bar on sex discrimination at colleges also requires that those schools take an active role to prevent and vigilantly investigate sexual assault.
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