The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That confirmation hearing, and three other reasons Betsy DeVos’s nomination is on the rocks

Betsy DeVos speaks during her confirmation hearing for secretary of education on Jan. 17. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
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Even after her botched confirmation hearing, almost nobody paying attention to President Trump’s Cabinet confirmation process thought his pick for education secretary would be in trouble.

And yet, she is now just one GOP defection away from being the first Cabinet nominee defeated by a Senate from the same party in nearly a century.

Two moderate GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said Wednesday that they can't support Betsy DeVos, largely because of her inexperience in public schools. Republicans have a 52 to 48 majority in the Senate, so if all members of the Democratic caucus join Murkowski and Collins in opposition, DeVos could be the first Cabinet nominee ever to require a tie-breaking vote by the vice president to be confirmed. If even one more GOP lawmaker opposes DeVos, her nomination fails.

In retrospect, say education experts, it makes sense that a billionaire with no experience in public schools who was seemingly ill-prepared for her confirmation hearing could be in trouble. Let's look more in depth at why:

1) She’s a one-issue nominee

When people in education policy think of DeVos, they think of school choice.

DeVos has made herself a national figure on the cause of giving vouchers to parents so they can choose whether to send their kids to private or public schools. She's also a big supporter of charter schools. She chaired the American Federation for Children, a D.C.-based group that advocates for school choice.

All of that is mostly a non-starter for Democrats. But the school-choice-above-all-else narrative also doesn't fit with some red-state Republican senators, whose rural states don't necessarily have a ton of private or charter schools to choose from. And because DeVos's positions on a host of other issues aren't well known, she isn't giving those senators much else to work with.

"If you are a senator who disagrees with DeVos on the issue of school choice and vouchers," said Elizabeth Mann of the Brookings Institution, "there aren't a lot of other places to find common ground."

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2) She doesn’t have experience in public schools

DeVos has not attended, sent her children to or worked in public schools.

And that's a big problem for people who see the education secretary's primary role as managing public schools, which a majority of American students attend. What else do they have to fall back on when searching for a reason to support her?

"[L]ike all of us, Mrs. DeVos is the product of her experience," Collins said on the Senate floor Wednesday, explaining why she'd be voting against DeVos.

DeVos's inexperience also underscores how unconventional Trump's Cabinet picks are: an oil tycoon for secretary of state or a neurosurgeon for chief of Housing and Urban Development.

Neither Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have formal diplomatic training. Trump's pick for Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, literally said he'd be "a fish out of water" in a federal bureaucracy.

But there's wiggle room when describing one's experience with diplomacy and bureaucracy. By contrast, you either have familiarity with public schools or you don't.

3) That confirmation hearing

At her confirmation hearing for education secretary on Jan. 17, Betsy DeVos gave some befuddling answers. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The idea that guns in schools could help protect students "from potential grizzlies." Confusion about a federal law requiring schools to help students with disabilities. Little to no understanding of a long-standing debate in the education community on whether to use test scores to measure a student's proficiency. A casual acknowledgment that her family probably gave some $200 million to the Republican Party over the years.

Far from alleviating some people's concerns about her inexperience with the average American parent, DeVos's moment in the spotlight exacerbated them — and even added a few more.

"I didn't see opposition or concerns from groups concerned about protecting rights for students with disabilities going into the confirmation, or guns in schools," Mann said. "It certainly was after the hearing."

4) A united opposition, a split front of support

Two weeks after DeVos's hearing, more than 300 (overwhelmingly Democratic) lawmakers in all 50 states submitted a letter to Congress opposing DeVos. Two powerful national teachers unions helped mobilize thousands of calls to senators' offices to decry DeVos. (Murkowski said she had been swayed by "thousands, truly thousands, of Alaskans who shared their concerns" about DeVos.)

The increasingly nationalized debate over school reform  has helped build up a sizable, well-organized and often powerful coalition of labor and progressive groups that are opposed to DeVos's school choice position. In an already contentious confirmation fight, that counts for something, said Frederick Hess, a DeVos supporter with the American Enterprise Institute.

"I don't know who has that kind of mobilization on the secretary of state, no matter how much more high-profile the position is," he said.

The heat on DeVos even forced a Republican super PAC to spend money on a digital advertising campaign to defend her as someone who “knows what it takes to repair our failing schools.”

Meanwhile, supporters for school reform weren't nearly as united. The Post's Emma Brown reported Wednesday that one of DeVos's peers in the charter school fight, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, even urged senators to oppose her — for many of the reasons listed above.