WASHINGTON — What previously appeared to be a near-certain chance of Betsy DeVos becoming President Donald Trump's education secretary took a hit Wednesday as two Republican U.S. senators said they would vote against her.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska delivered statements from the floor of the U.S. Senate saying they could not support DeVos' nomination, questioning both her experience and commitment to public schools.
"Mrs. DeVos is the product of her experience," said Collins. "She appears to view education through the lens of her experience of promoting alternatives to public education in Detroit and other cities." She went onto say that "concentration on charter schools and vouchers ... raises the question about whether or not she fully appreciates that the secretary of education's primary focus must be on helping states and communities … strengthen our public schools."
"I think Mrs. DeVos has much to learn about our nation's public schools," said Murkowski, who, like Collins raised concerns that her lack of experience with public schools could have a particular impact in rural areas in states like hers. She has been so involved in one side (of school vouchers and school choice), she may be unaware of what actually is successful within public schools and what is broke and how to fix them."
With Collins and Murkowski saying they will vote against DeVos — and earlier indications that all of the 48 Senate Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them would likely vote against her — her nomination could result in a 50-50 tie when it goes to the floor. That tie would be broken on DeVos' behalf by Vice President Mike Pence in his role as Senate president, though both sides will be looking for members of the other party to pick off in the meantime.
Both Collins and Murkowski on Tuesday voted in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to allow DeVos' nomination to proceed to the floor for a full vote out of deference to the new president but refused to commit to a final vote for her. A date for her final vote has not yet been set.
After a fractious debate over her qualifications last month, DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and philanthropist cleared the HELP Committee in a 12-11 party line vote. Democrats on the committee argued that she knows too little about education policy and would undermine public schools.
But Republicans, in the majority in both the committee and the full Senate, defended her as being committed to children even if she has been a key supporter of school choice. Before Tuesday's vote, both Murkowski and Collins, two GOP committee members from rural states, signaled that their votes in the committee did not necessarily guarantee support on the Senate floor.
DeVos faces fierce opposition from education and civil rights groups, many of whom have stood up to oppose her in just the past few days.
In a letter sent to lawmakers last week, Denise Marshall, executive director of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., a special education advocacy group, said that in her hearing, DeVos “manifested an appalling lack of knowledge of educational concepts, the difference between the federal and state statutes that govern education, and basic facts about public education. Specifically, her lack of knowledge of the IDEA is disturbing and offensive to us.”
Marshall said DeVos’ stance, whether due to confusion or ideological belief, “is unacceptable and clearly indicates that Ms. DeVos is unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education.”
On Monday, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urged lawmakers to reject DeVos. “She’s just not qualified to do that job,” said Liz King, the group’s director of education policy, who called DeVos’ appointment “abnormal from a bipartisan perspective.”
The group joined others opposing the nomination, including a group of about 2,700 students and alumni of DeVos’ alma mater, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and more than 345,000 people who have signed a Change.org petition.
Spangler writes for the Detroit Free Press; Toppo reported from McLean, Va.
Follow Todd Spangler on Twitter: @tsspangler; Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo