(Update: committee voted in support of DeVos; fixing typos)
Two Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — said Tuesday they are not yet committed to voting for Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary on the Senate floor. It was the first time that any Republican senators said they might not vote for President Trump’s nominee, the most polarizing education secretary nominee in the department’s history.
Collins and Murkowski made the comments during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which voted, on party lines, to favorably send the recommendation to the full House.
DeVos supporters praise her for being a longtime advocate of school choice who has helped low-income students find alternatives to failing public schools. Her critics say her education advocacy is aimed at privatizing the country’s public education system. They point out that she has called public schools a “dead end,” a remark she made in 2015.
Collins, often seen as more moderate than other Republicans on Capitol Hill, said she would vote for DeVos in the committee so that the nomination would be sent to floor of the Senate.
Actually, the nomination would have been sent to the floor for a full vote by the chairman of the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) even if the committee voted against DeVos.
Democrats say they have 48 votes against DeVos on the floor but need 51 — and they have been looking for Republican votes against her since her Jan. 17 hearing, where she displayed little understanding of some key education issues.
Collins said she was keeping her options open in regard to DeVos for the full Senate vote.
Now let me make clear that I know that Mrs. DeVos cares deeply about children. I recognize that she has devoted much time and resources to try and improve the education of at-risk children in cities whose public schools have failed them. And I commend her for that service.
Like all of us, Mrs. DeVos is the product of her experience. She appears to view education through the lens of her experience in promoting alternatives to public education in Detroit and other cities where she has no doubt done valuable work.
Nevertheless her concentration on charter schools and vouchers raises the question of whether or not she fully appreciates that the secretary of education’s primary focus must be on helping states and communities, parents, teachers, school board members and administrators strengthen our public schools.
That is why I wrote to Mrs. Devos seeking her assurances in writing that she would not support any federal legislation mandating that states adopt vouchers nor will she condition federal funding on the presence of voucher programs in the states. She has provided that commitment…
There remain other questions about Mrs. Devos’s knowledge of certain education laws. While it is unrealistic and unfair to expect a nominee to know all of the details of such programs, I was surprised and concerned about Mrs. Devos’ apparent lack of familiarity with the landmark 1975 law, IDEA, that guarantees a free and appropriate education for children with special needs. Therefore, I will continue to evaluate this nomination before it comes to the floor, even as I vote today to advance it so that all of our colleagues have the opportunity to assess this nominee.
Murkowski expressed concern about DeVos’s emphasis on school choice, which is difficult if not impossible to implement in rural areas which dominate Alaska. She said thousands of Alaskans have visited her offices and called and sent messages expressing concern about DeVos.
She, too, said she was not certain how she would vote on the Senate floor but would vote to approve the nomination in the committee.
“I will show the same respect, the same deference to President Trump’s nominee as I did President Obama’s. And I will vote to report Mrs. DeVos’s nomination to the full Senate.
“But do know that she has not yet earned my full support.”