Never in American history has a Cabinet member needed the vice president to break the tie that would elect them into the president’s Cabinet.
But the Senate vote on Betsy DeVos, who was later confirmed for the secretary of education position in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, was split 50-50 Tuesday afternoon. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey was on the “yes” side — despite earlier reports that he was wavering in his decision.
The news of Toomey’s potential flip-flop inspired many constituents to contact his office in an attempt change his mind. After a week of constituents’ voicemails and emails clogging his inboxes, Toomey released a statement on his Facebook page on Monday saying that many of the calls weren’t “getting through” because of their sheer volume.
Ultimately, it was Vice President Mike Pence, not Toomey or any other senator, who was the deciding vote in DeVos’ favor. Perhaps Trump’s most contentious Cabinet appointment, DeVos is a businesswoman, a former member of the Republican National Committee and a four-time chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party. DeVos has also been a prominent contributor to Republican campaigns, including Toomey’s.
Her lack of experience in the education sector, coupled with her plans to privatize schooling, has wrought criticism from education advocates, Democrats and teachers. At Pitt, young Democrats and future educators, including junior Morgan Buck, are concerned over the potential impact her appointment could have on their futures, and those of the children they work with.
Buck, who tutors and mentors at Arsenal Elementary School in Lawrenceville and University Prep in the Hill District, said Wednesday she’s still not convinced DeVos “knows even the basics of child development.”
“What we have is somebody who is completely out of touch who doesn’t have a degree in education making decisions for families and children who don’t have a voice in the academic community,” Buck, an applied developmental psychology major, said.
DeVos will be the first education secretary who hasn’t attended or sent her children to public school, according to Education Week. She also has no experience taking out a student loan for herself or her children — a point democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out in her hearing.
That’s especially concerning for Stephanie Chepega, who is pursuing her Master of Arts in teaching at Pitt. She dreads the possibility of DeVos weakening the public schools she plans to teach in.
“DeVos’ school experiences have not taught her anything about public schools,” Chepega said. “She therefore knows nothing about them, which will make it challenging for her to provide any true insight or leadership.”
Arnaud Armstrong, communications director of the Pitt College Republicans, didn’t debate DeVos’ lack of experience, but said right now “experience doesn’t really count for anything.” According to Armstrong, the Department of Education is filled with people who have related experience and are still failing the public school system.
“It’s a benefit to have a reformer coming from the private sector,” Armstrong said.
Republicans in the Senate were DeVos’ primary backers — only two voted against her Tuesday. Before the vote, the Pitt College Democrats acted in line with their higher political counterparts, hosting a phone bank just before her confirmation. During the phone bank, 30 students called into Toomey and other senators’ offices to request that they not vote for DeVos’ appointment.
Kevin Burk, a junior political science and history major who helped put on the event, said DeVos is not giving enough solutions on how to solve our current public school woes such as America’s troubled inner-city schools.
“She’s really just offering distractions rather than actual solutions,” Burk said.
One of those distractions, Burk said, was DeVos’ commitment to backing charter schools, which are publicly funded and independently run. Burk said that schools need a more “hands-on” approach rather than simply advocacy for the private sector.
DeVos supports the expansion of charter schools and a federal voucher program that would allocate funding for parents, giving them the ability to send their child to a school of their choice. Both positions fall in line with Trump’s.
Pointing to his own experience attending Allentown School District, which he said is struggling, Armstrong said Pennsylvania’s at a critical point for the kind of change DeVos could offer.
“If any state needs school choice, it’s Pennsylvania,” Armstrong said. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be fixed around here.”
Armstrong pointed to Philadelphia and Reading as other “impoverished” and failing school districts in Pennsylvania that needed change.
Chepega agreed, but doesn’t think DeVos has the right solutions.
“Now more than ever students will need qualified individuals to teach them,” Chepega said.
Opposition to DeVos hasn’t ceased now that she’s cinched the position. Despite political support for her ideas on privatization, she’ll be taking the job under intense skepticism from a number of voices in the American education system.
Charlotte Goldbach, vice president of the Pitt College Democrats, said she doesn’t think DeVos’ approach is a good sign for the future of education.
“Education should never be a political issue,” Goldbach said. “When you have professors, students, education unions and organizations speaking out against a candidate, you should know something is up. They know about the system better than anyone.”