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In squeaker, DeVos confirmed by U. S. Senate to be education secretary

February 7, 2017
By Will Sentell
Originally Posted on The Advocate

Betsy DeVos, who sparked strong divisions in Louisiana's education community, was narrowly confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate to be education secretary.

The vote was 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie.

Pence's vote marked the first such tiebreaker in American history for a Cabinet nominee's Senate confirmation, according to the Associated Press. Pence tweeted later in the day that supporting DeVos was "a vote for every child having a chance at a world-class education."

And there has been scathing opposition from teachers unions and civil rights activists over her support of charter schools and her conservative religious ideology.

President Donald Trump accused Democrats of seeking to torpedo education progress. In a tweet before the vote, he wrote, "Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!" 

She now takes the helm of a department charged with implementing laws affecting the nation's public schools with no direct experience with traditional public schools. Her opponents noted that she has no experience running public schools, nor has she attended one or sent her children to one

She also will have to address several hot-button issues in higher education, such as rising tuition costs, growing student debt and the troubled for-profit colleges, many of which have closed down, leaving students with huge loans and without a good education or job prospects.

Close attention also will be paid to how DeVos deals with sexual assault and freedom of speech on campuses.

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, emotions ran high as constituents jammed senators' phone lines. Protesters gathered outside the Capitol, including one person in a grizzly bear costume to ridicule DeVos. At one point, she said some schools should have guns because of the threat of grizzly bears.

Sharply divided Louisiana education leaders were keeping close tabs on the battle during two days of Senate debate on her nomination.

Arguments began on Monday and continued through the night as Democratic opponents sought, for the first  time, to defeat a cabinet nominee offered by GOP President Donald J. Trump.

While Republicans control the Senate, the fact that two Republican senators opposed the nomination ensured a close tally.

DeVos won praise in Louisiana from advocates who praised her longtime support for vouchers and charter schools. "Mrs. DeVos has been a staunch advocate and supporter of education reform," said Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children.

Opponents said DeVos failed to show enough support for public schools, and that her family's wealth put her out of touch with the concerns of most families.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a prepared statement that, despite widespread opposition, "an unqualified, unprepared, uninformed billionaire who has spent her life engaged in efforts to attack public education in Michigan is now in charge of our nation's public schools."

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said earlier DeVos should and would be confirmed and would bring "a breath of fresh air" to the education establishment.

"Throughout this process, Secretary DeVos has made it clear that she will be an agent of change to improve our schools and children's future," Cassidy said in a prepared statement after the vote.

Freshman U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Baton Rouge, also voted for Trump's nominee.

DeVos, who was sworn into office late Tuesday afternoon, is from Grand Rapids, Mich. and is former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party.

She and her husband Dick are longtime donors to education causes and politicians, including Cassidy.

Charter schools and vouchers play prominent roles in Louisiana's education landscape.

Louisiana has about 7,000 voucher recipients.

About 78,000 students attend the state's 145 charter schools.

DeVos is former head of the American Federation for Children, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Federation for Children.

Duplessis said after the vote that DeVos' confirmation will give children "a fighting chance to succeed," especially in New Orleans with its history of sub-par public schools. She added that DeVos' win is a positive sign for the voucher movement.

"We are very optimistic, not only for our families who are in the program but for families who desire to get into the program," said Duplessis, who lives in New Orleans.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said her group was heartened by the narrow tally, and the fact Pence had to cast  a historic vote.

"So I think she is probably going to have to walk a fine line," Meaux said. "I don't think she has a mandate of support behind her."

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said Louisiana has been a leader of the school choice movement for the past two decades.

The confirmation of DeVos, he said, "will only give more credence to the steps we have taken, and make it harder for officials to try to roll back the reforms."

Opponents of the nomination had launched a national campaign to defeat her.

Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said in a prepared statement after DeVos' confirmation that  his group opposed her "because of her record of promoting educational policies that are inconsistent with civil rights."

The new U.S. education secretary played a role in the 2012 overhaul of public schools pushed by then Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The former governor and DeVos spent hours at the time discussing education policy, Timmy Teepell, a longtime Jindal confidant, has said.

In addition to DeVos, Republicans hope to confirm a series of other divisive nominees this week: Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, GOP Rep. Tom Price of Georgia as health secretary and financier Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary.