The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The popular uprising that threatens the Betsy DeVos nomination

People listen to speakers during a rally in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 27. Several hundred people gathered with Oregon congressional leaders in protest against education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. (Don Ryan/AP)

If anyone can explain why Betsy DeVos has become the most embattled nominee ever for education secretary, it’s Anna Caudill, Tennessee mother of two.

Caudill has a son with disabilities. Her public school district did such a poor job educating him, she says, that she is suing in federal court. She can’t afford a private school, so she is home schooling him. She’s exactly the kind of parent who would seem aligned with DeVos, who believes in using public funds to help parents pay for private education.

But Caudill strongly opposes DeVos.

“Vouchers don’t come with any oversight of the schools in which they’re spent,” Caudill said. “They put the parent in the position of trading a child’s civil rights for money.”

This 44-year-old is part of the small army of parents, teachers and others around the country who have risen up against DeVos as President Trump’s nominee heads toward a breathtakingly close confirmation vote. They come from places as diverse as rural Alaska, inner-city Detroit and — like Caudill — suburban Nashville.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, appeared before senators for her confirmation hearing Jan. 17. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

They have held protests and clogged Senate phone lines with calls to send a message: They don’t want an education secretary who preaches escape from public schools. They want one who understands public schools and will work to improve them.

On Friday, the Republican-led Senate advanced the nomination toward final action, likely this week, that could result in a 50-50 split. That would force Vice President Pence to cast a rare tiebreaking vote.

Republicans say opposition to DeVos is the work of teachers unions and their toadies in the Democratic Party.

“Organized labor is pulling out all the stops in a last-ditch effort to resist accountability and deny equal educational opportunity to poor families, minorities and underrepresented communities,” said Ed Patru, spokesman for a group called Friends of Betsy DeVos.

It is true that unions have mobilized against DeVos, spreading the message that she is an enemy of public schools. But many others have joined the opposition.

“There is plenty that can be done to fix our public schools, but her approach is wrong,” said Katy Pape, 30, of the District, who works for a company that advises businesses. Pape showed up to protest DeVos on Capitol Hill one chilly recent Sunday, but she isn’t a teacher and she doesn’t have children. She just attended public schools, like the vast majority of Americans — and she believes in them.

Two Republicans say they will vote against DeVos

During the White House daily briefing on Feb. 1, press secretary Sean Spicer discussed the confirmation of President Trump’s education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos. (Video: Reuters)

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and major Republican donor, has for three decades used her wealth and political clout to advocate giving parents taxpayer-funded avenues to get out of public schools that aren’t serving them well. Many on the right have embraced her approach, calling her an outsider who has been willing to take on the education establishment and make radical changes.

But her nomination has revealed what Terry Moe, a Stanford political science professor and school voucher supporter, calls the nation’s “public school ideology”: Many Americans have a deep allegiance to public schools, flawed as they may be. And many don’t appreciate threats to what they consider a fundamental civic institution.

For decades surveys have found that while the public holds a dim view of U.S. education writ broadly, people are generally pleased with their own local public schools. Polling by PDK International, an association of education professionals, shows that Americans believe the No. 1 challenge facing public schools is lack of adequate funding.

Trump’s pledge to expand funding for vouchers and charter schools and his nomination of DeVos have captured the attention of these public school backers, said Joshua Starr, PDK’s chief executive, who is a former Montgomery County schools superintendent. “They’re like, ‘Wait. How is this going to work? They’re going to take money from us.’ ”

DeVos said during her confirmation hearing that, as education secretary, she would be a strong advocate for public schools. But she also left open the possibility that she would cut education funding and seek to privatize public schools.

That unsettled many senators, particularly those from rural states that voted for Trump where there are few alternatives to public schools. Republicans from Alaska and Maine have broken party lines to oppose DeVos. Moderate Democrats also said they could not support her.

“I can’t go home and explain it, can’t go home and sell it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “Our funding mechanism is so fragile in a rural state like West Virginia, you take any moneys away from that and divert it somewhere else, then some of the systems will collapse.”

DeVos was not widely known before her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, but video clips of her stumbles that evening went viral, turning her into a meme overnight.

She argued that schools should not be subject to a federal ban on guns because they may need to guard against “potential grizzlies.” And she had trouble answering basic policy questions, feeding the charge that — given her lack of personal and professional experience with public schools — she is unqualified to serve.

Michael Moore calls for mass opposition against DeVos as pushback grows

Many Republican senators defend DeVos as a conservative who would scale back the federal role in schools, returning the Education Department — which exercised unprecedented power under President Barack Obama — to its rightful place. She also has support among Republican governors and Democrats such as former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, a voucher proponent.

“She’ll be an excellent education secretary, in my judgment, and an important one for this country,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said Friday.

Opponents view DeVos as not just another wealthy Trump nominee without government experience. They say she is seeking a job in which her decisions will affect thousands of schools serving millions of kids.

Laura Beck of Austin is a 45-year-old mother of two who said she had never been politically active until two weeks ago, when she learned about DeVos. “This one affects our children,” she said. “You might say you should care about things that affect global warming, or national security. But when it affects children . . . it’s heart-string, mama-bear protectionism that you’re seeing.”

DeVos took heat for her suggestion during the hearing that states should decide whether to enforce a landmark 1975 federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, that protects students with disabilities. Later, she said she had been “confused” about the law, raising red flags for civil rights advocates and parents of children with special needs from both political parties.

About 6.5 million children from ages 3 to 21 receive special-education services under IDEA, or 13 percent of public school students. For schools that receive federal funding, ignoring the law is not an option.

DeVos’s stumbles on IDEA were among the reasons Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) gave for opposing the nominee. But Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), whose wife is a special-education teacher, said he received assurances from DeVos that she would enforce the federal law. He plans to vote for her.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can to make sure where she is short in knowledge as secretary, I’m going to stand by her side to give her that knowledge,” Isakson said.

Shortly after her confirmation hearing, she clarified that she would enforce federal laws related to special education. She said she also believed in expanding parents’ choices, pointing to an Ohio program that requires students with disabilities to give up their federal IDEA rights to qualify for a voucher.

Tera Myers, the mother of a student with Down syndrome who has participated in that Ohio program, praised DeVos as a “compassionate advocate for children with disabilities.”

Myers wrote in the Hill newspaper that IDEA often fails to live up to its promise, and that DeVos's advocacy for private-school vouchers had helped children such as her son find a better school. "I know that Betsy DeVos has a big heart and deep concern for all students in America, especially the most vulnerable children," Myers wrote.

Eli Broad, billionaire backer of charter schools, urges senators to oppose DeVos

But Caudill, the Tennessee mother of two, sees vouchers far differently. She has done the math, and it doesn’t work for her family.

Her son, Fu, whom she adopted from China, has a joint disorder that makes it difficult for him to walk or write quickly. He also has a language impairment.

Through a Tennessee program for students with disabilities, she could receive about $6,300 a year for private-school tuition, tutoring or other education services. But she would have to waive Fu’s rights under IDEA to a free and appropriate public education.

Even then, she wouldn’t be able to afford a private school. Her family of four lives on income of $60,000 a year and has annual medical expenses of roughly $13,000. Tuition at many faith-based schools hovers around $10,000, Caudill said, while a specialized school that could provide the services Fu needs would cost $40,000.

Rather than expanding a program useless to her, Caudill said, she wants the federal government to give public schools more money to help students with disabilities. Congress has for decades promised to give states 40 percent of the cost of providing special education, but it has never come close to paying that much.

“On average, I think public schools are far better armed to do what IDEA expects of them,” Caudill said. “It needs to be a situation where the feds put their money where their mouth is.”

Alejandra Matos and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this story.