School privatization proponent Betsy DeVos is the new secretary of education, but her con­firmation process likely was rockier than President Donald J. Trump anticipated.

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, citing concerns about DeVos’ lack of qualifications for the job, broke party lines and joined all 48 members of the Democratic caucus in opposing DeVos’ nomination.

That left the Senate deadlocked at 50-50 until Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote – the first time in history the vice president has been required to break a tie vote for a Cabinet secretary nominee.

The Feb. 7 vote marked the end of a tumultuous confirmation journey for DeVos. While Republicans have defended her outsider status as a boon to reform at the Department of Education, critics have pointed to her advocacy for private school voucher schemes, her lack of experience and her billionaire family’s financial ties to politicians and companies that could create conflicts of interest.

During a short speech to about 200 Department of Education employees on Feb. 8, DeVos quipped that the political battle was a “bit of a bear” – a reference to her remark during her confirmation hearing that she would oppose a ban on guns in schools because they could be needed to defend against grizzly bears in some rural states.

DeVos is a founder of the Great Lakes Education Project, a nonprofit based in her home state of Michigan, and the national American Federation for Children – both of which advocate for school vouchers. She is expected to be a cheerleader for Trump’s proposed $20 billion federal voucher plan. (See “Sneak Attack,” September 2010 Church & State.)

Americans United opposes efforts to divert desperately needed taxpayer dollars away from public schools that educate the vast majority of American school children and use that money to benefit a limited number of students in private, predominantly religious schools. Additionally, voucher programs have proven to be ineffective, lack accountability and don’t provide adequate civil rights protections.

AU’s concerns about DeVos were not alleviated during her Jan. 17 hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions when she refused to commit to holding private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers to the same accountability standards as public schools. Nor would she agree not to work toward privatizing public education.

When asked whether she would fight against having creationism taught in public schools, DeVos said she’d support science classes that encourage “critical thinking” – code words that have been co-opted by groups that push for the inclusion of “intelligent design” in the classroom. And she was reluctant to commit to enforcing the federal Individuals with Disabilities Ed­­ucation Act (IDEA) that protects the rights of children with special needs.

“The leader of our public education system should be an advocate for improving public schools, not dismantling them,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans Uni­ted, said upon DeVos’ confirmation. “We have grave concerns that DeVos will focus on finding ways to bleed public schools dry through vouchers and other so-called ‘school choice’ schemes.”      

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