Sen. Lisa Murkowski acted bravely this week. On Tuesday, as a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, she reluctantly approved the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education to be considered for a full Senate vote. Murkowski explained that did not mean she would vote for DeVos' confirmation and, indeed, on Wednesday she and fellow Republican and committee member Sen. Susan Collins of Maine announced that neither of them would be voting to approve DeVos' nomination. Public education advocates across the nation appreciate the risk these women take in voting their conscience. It shouldn't have to be a risk.
[Alaska Sen. Murkowski to vote against Trump nominee for education secretary]
It can be argued that Murkowski and Collins threw away their power as committee members to stop this nomination in its tracks. While some may see their voting against DeVos' confirmation now as political cover, they are also providing the public with an opportunity to see where each and every member of the Senate stands. Will any other Republicans be courageous enough to stand with them? Why is Alaska's other senator, Dan Sullivan, so resolved to approve DeVos in spite of the public's and Murkowski's grave concerns?
People of all political persuasions see that DeVos is grossly unqualified to be secretary of education. She has zero experience in public education as a student, parent, professional or advocate. In fact, her efforts have siphoned federal funding away from public schools and into for-profit private institutions with minimal to no accountability. The results of these charter schools in Michigan are abominable. One only has to listen to part of her confirmation hearings to realize she is unprepared and ill-suited for this role. It all begs the question: How could she even be nominated in the first place? Amway billionaire DeVos is on record saying, "I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point … We expect a return on our investment."
Is America still a democracy, or are we conceding to an aristocracy? Isn't one of public education's primary purposes supposed to be the prevention of such a danger? Thankfully, $43,200 in campaign contributions was not enough to buy Murkowski's vote. Do we need to ask why $23,400 may be enough to buy Sullivan's? If even another billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, himself a proponent of charter schools, opposes DeVos' nomination, why isn't Sullivan demanding a better choice to serve in this critically important role?
Public education is not a business; it is the bedrock of democracy. It is one of government's most important obligations: to provide an opportunity for every child to become an educated and contributing citizen. For all of its problems and complexities, there is much happening within our schools to be celebrated. We should not give up on public education; we must recommit to continuously improving it. The secretary of education should be a champion for our children — someone who understands and has a record of supporting public education and all who devote their lives to it. Betsy DeVos may be a kind woman who uses her considerable privilege to help others, but she is simply unqualified to be the secretary of education.
The full Senate vote could happen as early as Monday morning. As fellow citizens, members of Great Alaska Schools encourage you to take five minutes today to write, call or visit the office of Sen. Sullivan and voice your opinion. Find contact information at: www.sullivan.senate.gov. Encourage friends to do the same. Join us on Facebook at Great Alaska Schools Anchorage for our "Tie-Breaker Telethon" today between 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.
It is not too late for Sullivan to change his mind. It is our duty as citizens to let our public servants know where we stand. Remind Sullivan that regardless of party affiliation or campaign contributions, we Alaskans are his constituents.
Val Buckendorf is a founding member of Great Alaska Schools, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving public education in Alaska. Other Great Alaska Schools members signing on to this commentary are Alison Arians, Becca Bernard, Andrea Cordano, Alyse Galvin, Terrie Gottstein, Suzanne LaFrance, Deena Mitchell, Thomas Plawman, Aaron Poe, Caroline Storm, Steve Suewing, Brenda Taylor and Diane Wiggin.
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