Betsy DeVos and the president who nominated the longtime champion of publicly funded private schools to be secretary of Education can have a muted celebration today after Vice-President Mike Pence broke a Senate tie to confirm her. But the surprisingly difficult struggle over DeVos is not a good sign for the policies with which she has been identified.
For one thing, her nomination and her performance in confirmation hearings galvanized public education advocates to an unprecedented degree, and also made her a symbol of the sometimes comical fecklessness of the incoming Trump administration generally. As Alia Wong notes, DeVos was the target of a savagely effective Saturday Night Live skit and has become something of a social-media cartoon villain.
“All us education nerds were on Twitter saying, ‘Whoa, there was an education secretary being spoofed on SNL!’ That says it all, right?” said Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International, a professional educators’ association, and the former superintendent of Montgomery County Schools in Maryland.
What matters most about DeVos, though, is the polarizing effect her nomination produced in the Senate. None of the ten Democratic senators from states carried by Trump who are up for reelection in 2018 supported her confirmation, and she lost two Republicans (Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski).
That spells trouble for the idea Trump embraced during the presidential campaign: using federal education funds as a carrot and stick to get states to embrace and expand “school choice” options, which in the Trump-DeVos universe means giving parents public money to choose private (including religious) schools as well as independently operated public charter schools. Enacting that proposal would involve an amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act (the successor to No Child Left Behind) that would normally require 60 Senate votes, including eight Democrats. It’s hard to see where those votes would come from.
It is possible a radical education proposal like this could be nestled into one of the two budget reconciliation bills Congress is expected to consider this year, assuming Republicans can get their act together on various related political and policy decisions. But the first of those bills is supposed to repeal Obamacare, and the second is reserved for tax cuts, and after the furor over DeVos it is doubtful the administration or its congressional allies will want to risk either of those mega-priorities by engaging the political buzzsaw that endangered the DeVos nomination.