In the last 24 hours before the U.S. Senate is set to vote on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, Democrats, parents and other public education advocates are making their final attempts to prevent her from heading the department.
All 48 Democratic senators are expected to vote against her confirmation. Two Republican senators ― Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) ― announced last week that they would also oppose the pick. In the days since, constituents have flooded the phone lines of Republican senators in hopes of pushing the vote count to 51-49. While many of President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees have generated substantial pushback, in the past few weeks DeVos has emerged as the most polarizing pick.
If no other Republican votes against her, Vice President Mike Pence has said, he will cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of DeVos.
In the day before the vote, scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, Democratic senators are spending 24 hours straight speaking out against DeVos on the Senate floor. The effort is being led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, which deals with health, education, labor and pensions. Murray has expressed vigorous opposition to DeVos.
“Hundreds of thousands have emailed or called their Senators — jamming phone lines, swamping the voicemail system and shattering records,” Murray said on the Senate floor Monday. “Millions have engaged on social media —sharing information with their friends, signing petitions, and pressuring their elected officials. Democrats will hold the floor for the next 24 hours, until the final vote, to do everything we can to persuade just one more Republican to join us. And I strongly encourage people across the country to join us — to double down on your advocacy.”
At the same time, some teachers mounted their own, silent protest inside their classrooms. Teachers across the country sometimes wear red to school to show support for public education. But on Monday, amid the lead-up to the DeVos vote, some wore black.
The push to get to teachers to wear black was started by a nonprofit group called the Badass Teachers Association, a nationwide network of teachers that works to promote policies supporting traditional public education.
“We want to show people that ― people aren’t smiling, we don’t think this is really funny, it’s a dark, sad time for us if Congress thinks this woman is qualified,” said Marla Kilfoyle, a teacher on Long Island who also serves at the executive director of the association.
Supporters of DeVos have sought to paint her detractors as tools of teachers unions, who, like DeVos, donate substantially to members of Congress. Indeed, the Badass Teachers Association has caucuses in the nation’s two biggest unions, although it is its own independent group. However, there is evidence that the fight against DeVos has inspired action from educators and parents who don’t typically get political. After receiving mainly poor marks for her confirmation hearing at the end of January, DeVos has faced a barrage of criticism for her seeming lack of qualifications and commitment to public education. Murkowski cited strong concerns from constituents as part of her reasoning for decided to oppose DeVos.
DeVos, who has never formally worked in public schools, has spent decades advocating for education reform policies. She is a particular fan of policies that help charter schools and voucher programs, which use taxpayer money to pay for kids’ private schools. She has received strong support from establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, as well as a handful of Democrats who work in education reform causes. Her supporters say that she is committed to changing the status quo in order to fix education, even if it means moving established norms.
“Simply put, Betsy believes deeply that each child should be equipped with the knowledge to succeed in life,” Bush said. “And her passion runs deepest when it comes to extending this opportunity to disadvantaged children, those who struggle and fail in classrooms that don’t merit their needs while parents look on helpless to do anything about it.”
Democrats have also criticized her for extensive financial entanglements and potential conflict of interests, although the Office of Government Ethics has cleared her.
But DeVos seems to have struck a chord for casual observers of education, grassroots groups and high-profile celebrities, who have rallied against her on social media. On Saturday, actor George Takei used Twitter to call on followers to take the “DeVos pledge” and vote against senators who confirm DeVos.
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. Tips? Email: Rebecca.Klein@