Betsy DeVos confirmed as Secretary of Education; VP Pence casts deciding vote

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WASHINGTON (AP/WXMI) — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed school choice activist Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education by the narrowest of margins, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to cast a historic vote to break the 50-50 tie.

The Senate historian says it was the first time a vice president had to break a tie on a Cabinet nomination.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. DeVos is known for her advocacy of school choice and education voucher programs and is a long-time leader of the Republican Party in Michigan. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. DeVos is known for her advocacy of school choice and education voucher programs and is a long-time leader of the Republican Party in Michigan. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The vote followed an unprecedented all-night protest by Democrats on the Senate floor speaking in opposition of the West Michigan billionaire.

Two Republicans joined Democrats Tuesday to vote against DeVos. Democrats cited her lack of public school experience and financial interests in organizations pushing charter schools. DeVos has said she would divest herself from those organizations.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said they feared DeVos' focus on charter schools will undermine remote public schools in their states.

Despite the win, DeVos emerges bruised from the highly divisive nomination process. She has faced criticism, even ridicule for her stumbles and confusion during her confirmation hearing and scathing criticism from teachers unions and civil rights activists over her support of charter schools and her conservative religious beliefs.

But President Donald Trump remained uncompromising and accused Democrats for seeking to torpedo education progress. In a tweet before the vote, he wrote "Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!"

DeVos has provided few details about her policy agenda, but she is sure to have a busy job. DeVos will have to weigh in on the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act and possibly undo some of the previous administration's regulation initiatives on school accountability and spending, which have been criticized by Republicans as federal overreach. Rules on such things as accountability already have been on hold.

She will have to address several hot-button issues in higher education, such as rising tuition costs, growing student debt and the troubled for-profit colleges, many of which have closed down, leaving students with huge loans and without a good education or job prospects. Observers will pay close attention to how DeVos deals with sexual assault and freedom of speech on campuses.

DeVos will also have to react to Trump's campaign proposal of funneling $20 billion of public funds toward school vouchers.

cabinet-confirmations

In addition to DeVos, Republicans hope to confirm a series of other divisive nominees this week: Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, GOP Rep. Tom Price of Georgia as health secretary and financier Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary.

In each case Democrats intend to use the maximum time allowed under the Senate's arcane rules to debate the nominations, which may result in a late-night votes this week and delay Mnuchin's approval until Saturday.

More reactions are coming in:

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, released this statement:

“I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans confirmed Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education. I’ve heard from an overwhelming number of Michigan families who have shared their strong concerns about her long record of pushing policies that have seriously undermined public education in Michigan and failed our children. That is why I joined with half of my Senate colleagues, including two Republicans, to oppose her nomination.”

Steve Cook, president, Michigan Education Association, released this statement:

“Throughout this entire process, Betsy DeVos has shown that she is unqualified for the position, but that didn’t seem to matter to most Republicans because they and their party have benefitted from the huge campaign contributions signed by the DeVos family. Instead of having a champion for public education as our nation’s top education officer, we now have someone whose life’s work is undermining our neighborhood schools through for-profit charter and voucher gimmicks.”

FOX 17s Josh Sidorowicz contributed to this report.

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