(Update: Adding voices of other critics)
The unlikely battle over the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s nominee for education secretary is becoming even more pitched in the final days before a Senate vote with the airing of hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertisements attacking “extreme liberals” full of “rage and hate” who oppose her while protests against her were being staged around the country.
The controversy over the nomination of DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, is the most ferocious of any education secretary in the nearly 40-year history of the Education Department, and of any Trump nominee — and it is only likely to deepen until there is a vote early next week on the Senate floor. The vote stands, it is believed, at 50-50, including two Republicans who have come out against DeVos despite enormous pressure from the GOP to support her. If no senator changes position, Vice President Pence would have to break the tie to confirm her.
Republican leaders and a White House spokesman said they are sure she will be confirmed, but her opponents are still hoping to persuade one Republican senator to switch sides this weekend. Senate offices — in Washington and in the states — have been swamped with phone calls and emails — in some cases unprecedented numbers.
Supporters of DeVos say that she is a champion of school choice who wants to help students find the best educational opportunities and that the opposition is coming from partisan Democrats playing politics. Her critics say that her advocacy for charter schools and vouchers and support for religious schools shows her determination to privatize public education and that she is out of the mainstream even in the school choice world, evidenced by opposition to her from many supporters of school choice.
In the final days before the vote, the wrangling over the nomination is increasing and taking some unusual turns.
Advertisements began running on television in support of DeVos, with one of them saying:
Why is the radical left so full of rage and hate? They still can’t accept that Trump won and they lost. Now extreme liberals like Elizabeth Warren are trying to stop Betsy DeVos from becoming secretary of education. DeVos angers the extreme left because she exposes their hypocrisy. DeVos wants low-income kids to have the same choices that liberal elitists have for their families. DeVos wants equal opportunity in education for all kids, and that makes angry liberals even angrier.
The ads are being paid for by a conservative group called America Next, which has both ads posted on its website, and is led by Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor who had a short-lived campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The group is spending, according to Politico, a half-million dollars on the ads. They follow a digital pro-DeVos advertising campaign launched by America Rising Squared — an arm of the Republican super PAC America Rising.
Although supporters of DeVos blame the opposition on Democrats and the two teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, critics come from the political spectrum.
Some conservative Republicans oppose her in part because they say she supports the Common Core State Standards, though she says she doesn’t; she is a strong ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush who was a big Core supporter for years.
Parents with children with disabilities have come out against her, saying they don’t believe she will protect their interests, and many school choice supporters, such as billionaire Eli Broad, who would have been expected to support her are in fact opposing her, saying they don’t think she believes in public education. She says she does.
Hundreds of students and graduates from the Christian college she attended, Calvin College, wrote against her nomination too, saying she isn’t qualified and didn’t care enough about public schools.
Public education advocates, including parents and teachers, oppose the nomination, including the Network for Public Education and the Badass Teachers Association. Some of their members have been critical of the teachers unions.
Sandra Stotsky, no fan of the unions, opposes DeVos’s nomination because she believes DeVos is a supporter of the Common Core, despite her statement that she isn’t. Stotsky is professor emerita in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and a strong critic of the Common Core State Standards. She had developed one of the country’s strongest sets of academic standards for K-12 students while serving as senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999-2003. Stotsky points to parent groups who have come out against DeVos because of the Common Core. For example, the South Dakota Citizens for Liberty wrote in a letter to Trump:
Your Secretary of Education Nominee, Betsy DeVos, has stated her position as being against Common Core, yet she has been a leader in pushing it, as have many other well-intentioned people. She champions “Choice and Accountability.” But if “Choice” is only among COMMON CORE compliant programs, the reality is, THIS IS NOT TRUE CHOICE.
Meanwhile protests are being held in cities across the country this weekend, some of them organized by teachers unions, to try to persuade at least one Republican senator to vote against her, which would tank the nomination. Among the protests on Saturday was one in Denver outside the office of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), urging him to vote against he, and one in Verona, N.J., where hundreds gathered to protest DeVos:
On Friday, a few hundred people protested in front of the west Omaha offices of Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), asking her to do the same. Fischer was one Republican that DeVos critics had hoped would buck the GOP leadership on the vote because she has stated that she opposes vouchers, which DeVos supports, and is a strong supporter of public education, but the senator came out in support of DeVos.
There were protests in Kansas by teachers, parents and others urging Sen. Jerry Moran (R) to change his mind after he came out in support of DeVos, and in Philadelphia, protesters appeared at the offices of Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to try to persuade him to reverse his decision to vote for her. He said he wouldn’t.
One teacher, Katherine Fritz, noting that DeVos had donated $55,800 to Toomey’s campaign, started a tongue-in-cheek $60,050 fundraising effort to “pay” for Toomey’s vote on GoFundMe.com. She actually got more than that, over $66,000 from almost 4,000 people in two days, the website says. She wrote:
Betsy DeVos has never set foot in a classroom, did not send her children to public school, cannot distinguish between proficiency and growth, and thinks that guns should be allowed in schools in the event of grizzly attacks. That fictitious grizzly is about as qualified as Ms. DeVos to run the Department of Education.
If Betsy DeVos can buy Senator Toomey’s vote, we should be allowed to do the same.
If, of course, Senator Toomey does not wish to accept any funds raised*, all money will be donated to Camp Sojourner, the Pennsylvania Arts Education Network, and the Children’s Literacy Initiative.
Other people started a GoFundMe.com campaigns to “buy” the votes of other senators who had accepted donations from DeVos, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, a woman named Julia Silge couldn’t get through to the office of her senator, Orrin G. Hatch (R), for weeks to talk about DeVos, so she bought a ham-and-pineapple pizza and tried to get it delivered to the office with a note saying, “From a Salt Lake constituent in 84105: Please vote NO on Betsy DeVos. She is an inappropriate choice to lead our public schools.”
Alas, it didn’t get through, but the office saw the pizza order after she posted it on Twitter, the newspaper said.
A new element has entered the debate about DeVos — whether the opposition to DeVos is sexist. The line goes that DeVos is being attacked by critics for being clueless about key education issues, which she displayed during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing — but other Cabinet nominees who have known next to nothing about their portfolios have been confirmed, such as neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who said he wasn’t qualified to run a federal government department before he decided to accept Trump’s offer to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, Nikki Haley wasn’t exactly an expert on foreign affairs when she, as governor of South Carolina, was tapped by Trump and confirmed by the Senate to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.