- The Magazine
It came down to the vote of Mike Pence to break a tie, but Republican billionaire donor and school privatization advocate Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as the next Secretary of Education, despite a rocky confirmation process and questions regarding her family’s history of donations to anti-LGBTQ causes.
In the end, all 48 members of the Senate Democratic caucus and Republicans Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted against DeVos, with every other Republican voting in favor. In a sign of how imperiled DeVos’ nomination had become, Republicans scheduled the DeVos vote prior to confirming Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General, because they knew they’d need his vote to force a tie vote and send DeVos’ nomination to Pence for final approval.
The New York Times reports that DeVos’ nomination marks the first time that a vice president has cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm a cabinet nominee, according to the U.S. Senate historian.
Prior to the vote on DeVos’ nomination, which happened early Tuesday afternoon, Democrats had held a 24-hour marathon speech session in which senators expressed their opposition to the nominee for a host of reasons, including her lack of experience with public education and her unfamiliarity with educational protections for minority students, including those with disabilities.
LGBTQ groups had opposed her nomination for many of the same reasons, as well as questions surrounding whether she was aware of donations from her mother’s foundation — where she was listed as a board member for nine years on official tax forms — to groups that lobby against LGBTQ equality measures and espouse the practice of conversion therapy. DeVos attributed her listing on the tax forms to a “clerical error,” and told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) during her confirmation hearing that she has “never believed in” conversion therapy.
Dr. Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, says one of the biggest concerns about DeVos is her championing of funding schemes that drain dollars from public schools and putting it into voucher or tuition tax credit programs. The problem with these programs is that limited funds are available, and that students benefitting from those programs are not entitled to the same protections they would be in a public school. For example, public schools can be denied federal funding if they are found guilty of violating students’ civil rights, whether that include children with disabilities, students of color, non-English language learners, or LGBT students.
“We will have to be completely vigilant at all times as to how public education will move forward on DeVos’ watch and under a Trump administration,” Byard says. “We have to be on alert for all attempts to carve away the protections that currently make it possible for students to go to school, and go to schools that provide meaningful opportunities, that have reasonable funding, that actually serve students.”
Byard also warns that measures taken by the Education Department limiting or rescinding civil rights protections currently available to students would “allow for increased stigmatization harm young people by telling them their lives are not worthy of protection.”
“I don’t see how any parent, or anyone who cares about children, could stand by and let that happen,” she says.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the organization was “disappointed” in DeVos’ confirmation, particularly after “unprecedented public opposition” to her nomination. NCTE has particularly been concerned about whether a DeVos-led Department of Education will recognize transgender students’ right to be afforded equal access to opportunities and facilities like restrooms and locker rooms under Title IX. The Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on that issue later this spring.
“As we have before, we continue to call on her to disavow disturbing anti-transgender statements and positions of organizations she has been a major donor to, including statements that transgender people are ‘broken’ and that transgender people should not be teachers,” Keisling said in a statement.
“Now that she will be in charge of the Department of Education, [DeVos] must carry out her legal responsibility to protect and support all students, including vulnerable transgender students,” added Keisling. “We insist that she meet with transgender students and their parents to hear their stories.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
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