WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary Tuesday by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a historic tiebreaking vote after senators deadlocked over her fitness for the job.
DeVos now takes the helm of the Education Department with questions about whether and how the polarizing fight over her confirmation will affect her power to advance the Trump administration's agenda.
The entire Democratic caucus of 48 senators voted against DeVos, as did two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who said they did not think that DeVos was qualified for the job. The remaining 50 Republicans voted for her, setting up a 50-50 tie that could be broken only with Pence's vote.
It marked the first time that a vice president's tiebreaker was needed to confirm a Cabinet secretary, according to Daniel Holt, an assistant historian in the Senate Historical Office. And it was the first time a vice president cast any tiebreaker in the Senate since Richard Cheney did so nine years ago.
DeVos, the fifth of President Trump's Cabinet secretary choices to win confirmation, was sworn in Tuesday evening. The next vote is expected Wednesday on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be attorney general. He, too, will draw strong Democratic opposition. Other nominees are advancing to the floor. On Tuesday, a Senate committee unanimously approved David Shulkin's nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The DeVos vote showed the limits of the Senate minority party's power: Democrats can protest Trump's nominees, but they can't block them.
Republicans defended DeVos as an outsider who will challenge the status quo and as a conservative who will reduce the federal footprint in public schools, stripping away regulations they see as burdensome. The GOP is keen to change course after eight years in which the Obama Education Department exercised unusual influence over the nation's schools.
"Betsy DeVos has committed: No more Washington mandates, no more national school board," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, on Tuesday. "I urge a yes vote."
Opponents said that DeVos doesn't understand or believe in public schools and that she is not committed to enforcing civil rights laws. Those arguments, coupled with her rocky confirmation hearing performance in January, sparked a popular backlash and a level of partisan opposition unprecedented for an education secretary nominee.
"Is this a knowledgeable candidate who understands the federal law? Is this a candidate who comes to us without conflicts of interest? Is this a candidate who is willing to stand up and be the defender of all young children in the schools?" said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "To me … she is not."
Trump weighed in via Twitter: "Senate Dems protest to keep the failed status quo. Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!" he wrote. DeVos retweeted the president's message, and she plans to address the department staff on Wednesday afternoon.
Dozens of Democrats took to the Senate floor to speak out against DeVos for most of the day Monday and through the night into Tuesday, a 24-hour effort to persuade one more Republican to break party ranks and derail the confirmation. They failed, but their demonstration was welcomed by many of the parents, teachers and activists who had marched against DeVos and flooded Senate phone lines to oppose her nomination.
Since the Education Department was established in 1979, nominees to lead it have always been easily confirmed, often on voice votes or with unanimous support. The previous closest confirmation vote for an education secretary was 49 to 40 in 2016, in favor of John King Jr., who served in the last year of Barack Obama's presidency.
DeVos is unlike previous nominees in that she has no personal or professional experience in public education or elected office. Her free-market approach triggered opposition from teachers unions, which mobilized considerable forces against her, as well as from fellow education activists who said they worried that she was more committed to the ideology of "school choice" than to ensuring quality schools for vulnerable children. DeVos has promised that she will not force vouchers onto states that don't want them, but she has also said that it's important for parents to have the opportunity to choose alternatives to traditional public schools – including vouchers, full-time virtual schools and public charter schools.
Trump pledged on the campaign trail to redirect $20 billion in federal funds to an effort to expand school voucher programs and charter schools. Such a sweeping proposal, which would require congressional approval, seemed a heavy lift even before the DeVos nomination. Now, with Capitol Hill so deeply divided over DeVos, it seems more remote.
But DeVos could seek to promote alternatives to public schools through other means, some of which would require only a simple majority in the Senate.
Lindsey Burke of the conservative Heritage Foundation said she expects the Trump administration to try to extend the tax benefits of 529 college savings plans to savings plans for private K-12 schools. She said she also anticipates an effort to expand choice for students attending schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, and a push to extend the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program – the nation's only federally funded voucher program – to all students in the District of Columbia.
There are legal limits on the education secretary's authority, but Burke said that DeVos can use her new position to advocate for education that is paid for by taxpayers, but not necessarily delivered in public schools.
"There is now someone at the federal level who recognizes that there's a real redefinition of public education underway," Burke said. "Public education does not have to mean government schooling."
There has been speculation that the Trump administration could seek to promote vouchers through a competitive grant program similar to Obama's Race to the Top, which helped persuade states to adopt Common Core academic standards and new teacher evaluations in return for a better shot at federal dollars.
Some Republicans hope that, with Trump and DeVos in office, they can win a fight they have lost repeatedly in recent years: allowing $15 billion in Title I funds, meant to help children from low-income families, to follow those students to the schools of their choice, including private schools. But such a change could slice deep holes in the budgets of some of the nation's neediest schools, including in rural areas, and would be likely to encounter stiff resistance on Capitol Hill.
Civil rights advocates are concerned about priorities that DeVos could push with executive power, including rolling back or revising Obama administration guidance on how schools handle complaints of campus sexual assault and what accommodations they must make for transgender students. The agency also has wide latitude to decide how aggressively to investigate complaints about civil rights and special-education services, and it is responsible for deciding whether state plans for judging the success of schools measure up to the law.
DeVos was not widely known when Trump picked her in November. But that changed after she stumbled in her confirmation hearing over basic policy questions and left open the possibility that she would cut education funding, privatize public schools and scale back the department's civil rights work.
Video clips from the hearing went viral, and DeVos became an instant meme even before Trump's inauguration. Opposition to her nomination then snowballed.
Teachers union leaders, civil rights activists and Democrats have vowed to keep the spotlight on DeVos now that the 59-year-old from Ada, Michigan, is the nation's 11th education secretary.
"Across the country, parents, teachers, community leaders and civil rights advocates are rightly insisting that the federal role in education should be to strengthen public education, not abandon it, and to protect students' civil rights including students with disabilities, low-income students, students of color, LGBT students, and immigrant students," said King, Obama's second education secretary. "The open question now is, will the future leadership of the department heed that message?"
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The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.