BY BTL STAFF
WASHINGTON – After contentious confirmation hearings, protests across the country and two rounds of voting, Betsy DeVos cleared the first hurdle in her path to becoming secretary of education on Jan. 31 with a party-line vote in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that advanced her nomination to the Senate floor.
All 12 Republican senators on the committee voted for DeVos, a billionaire with a complex web of investments, including some in companies with connections to federal education policy. All 11 Democrats opposed her, calling her both dangerous and unqualified.
The committee voted twice on DeVos’s nomination after Democrats protested against a vote cast on behalf of Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, who was initially absent.
DeVos’s ultimate confirmation, while likely, is still not definite, according to a New York Times report. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the committee, was visibly frustrated — by Democratic delaying tactics and arguments — as he defended DeVos and said she would be devoted not only to giving parents a choice about school options but also to protecting public schools.
“She wants to reverse the trend of a national school board and stop telling teachers and school boards how to run their schools,” said Alexander. “One would think the committee would be delighted with that. I respect my colleagues. I don’t question their motives. I don’t question their votes. But I believe their concerns are misplaced.”
But Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, expressed reservations about DeVos that sounded similar to those of DeVos’s opponents. The senator said that while she would vote to advance DeVos out of committee, she would not commit to voting for her on the Senate floor.
“She has not yet earned my full support,” said Murkowski, who referred to conversations with Alaska teachers. “Betsy DeVos must show all of us that she truly understands children of all America, of rural, of urban, who are not able to access an alternative choice in education.”
Democrats, teachers’ unions and liberal protesters have been flooding senators with calls and emails protesting her nomination for myriad reasons. They have expressed concern about her family’s contributions to groups that support so-called conversion therapy for LGBT people; her donations to Republicans and their causes, which she agreed have totaled about $200 million over the years; and her past statements that government “sucks” and that public schools are a “dead end.”
Opponents have focused on the poor performance of charter schools in Detroit, which she has bankrolled even as she resisted legislation that would have blocked chronically failing charter schools from expanding.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, insisted she needed more time to question DeVos about possible conflicts of interests and about her dedication to ensuring the protection of public schools, which she eschewed for her own children.
“I have not been persuaded that Betsy DeVos will put students first if she were confirmed, and I have not been persuaded that she has the experience, skills, understanding, or vision to lead this critical department at a time when it is more important than ever,” said Murray. “From everything we heard, everything we know, and all of the questions that still remain, it is clear to me that Betsy DeVos is the wrong choice to lead our nation’s Department of Education.”