Senate Democrats finally grew a spine, but it was no match for Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the next United States secretary of education Tuesday, following a Senate vote of 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence acting as tie-breaker. Remarkably, she did not get any help from the Democrats, who have otherwise acted like a revolving door for most of President Donald Trump's Cabinet picks.
Perhaps that's because DeVos is a particularly unconscionable choice for secretary of Education. While the majority of Trump's Cabinet — namely attorney general pick Jeff Sessions, Environmental Protection Agency pick Scott Pruitt and newly sworn-in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — seem to have been chosen based largely on the likelihood that they'll undermine the agencies they've been tapped to lead, DeVos also raises serious questions about whether she even understands her job.
Senate Democrats weren't always so oppositional. Six of Trump's nominees had been confirmed before Tuesday's vote, and Democrats had put up little resistance, to the chagrin of progressives who'd spent the previous month protesting the president's agenda.
Not a single Democratic senator opposed all six of those picks, though most voted against both CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Only one — Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — voted "nay" for five of Trump's nominees. On Monday, in contrast, Democrats held the Senate floor all night to protest DeVos' confirmation vote.
"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 [in voting against DeVos]," Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said, according to the Hill.
But it was all for naught. The Senate Republicans all rallied around DeVos despite the staggering lack of preparedness she displayed during her confirmation hearing. At her hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked DeVos for her thoughts on "growth versus proficiency" in measuring student progress ("growth" meaning how much students improve, and "proficiency" meaning whether they meet a certain standard deemed proficient).
"I think if I'm understanding your question correctly around proficiency," DeVos answered, "I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so each student is measured according to the advancement that they're making in each subject area..."
"Well that's growth," Franken interrupted. "That's not proficiency. So in other words, the growth they're making is in 'growth.' The proficiency is an arbitrary standard. ... This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years," Franken added. "It surprises me that you don't know this issue."
It was a wonky exchange, but it illustrated just how out of her depth DeVos was. And it didn't stop there. The Michigan school choice fundraiser and billionaire also famously suggested that guns in public schools were a good idea because they could be use to protect children against bear attacks.
DeVos has spent years advocating for school vouchers, which allow public money to be used to fund private, and even religious, schools. She also supports charter schools, and has fought against greater public oversight for these often privately operated but publicly funded institutions. She has never attended a public school in her life, nor have any of her children. Like Ben Carson, Trump's new housing secretary, she has never held elected office or run anything resembling a federal agency.
Now, a significant chunk of our children's educational future is in her hands. It's a chilling prospect. But at least the Democrats didn't go along quietly this time.