ain't over til it's over - and it's over

It’s official: Betsy DeVos wins confirmation after vice president’s historic tie-breaker

After a bruising fight, Betsy DeVos, the billionaire philanthropist and school choice activist, got the votes she needed to become the next U.S. education secretary.

It took a historic move to make it happen: a vote from Vice President Mike Pence, who was called in to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate. All of that body’s Democrats voted against DeVos, as did two Republicans.

But despite a 24-hour, last-ditch talkathon by Democrats, a third Republican to oppose DeVos — whose vote would have toppled her nomination — never emerged.

The vote was historic for more than just Pence’s role. In the two months since President Donald Trump nominated DeVos, the Michigan power broker became his most controversial nominee, attracting more public opposition even than his choices for secretary of state or attorney general. DeVos’s bungling of questions about guns in schools and special-education law ignited unprecedented opposition: congressional mailboxes overflowed, grizzly bear memes appeared at nationwide protests, and rumors that a Pennsylvania senator could be on the fence sparked a crowdfunding campaign that topped $70,000. She was even mocked on “Saturday Night Live.”

DeVos’s nomination also widened growing divides among the bipartisan coalition that has pushed for overhauling American education over the last 25 years. Eli Broad, the developer turned charter-school backer; Sen. Cory Booker, who supported charters and private-school vouchers as Newark mayor; and the group Democrats for Education Reform have all said DeVos is the wrong choice.

As the head of the federal education department, DeVos won’t have unlimited authority to reshape education. In fact, state legislatures hold most of the power to make decisions about funding for schools, how schools are judged, and how charter schools will grow, for example. Their power has only increased in the last year amid an overhaul of federal education law.

That means states with liberal legislatures are unlikely to embrace the conservative agenda quickly. But DeVos’s could use her powerful pulpit to advance conservative ideas that, if enacted, would affect all 50 states.

These include potentially changing the federal tax code to allow parents to use tax-deductible donations to pay private school tuition and changing rules about how federal funds for poor students are allocated. DeVos will also set the pace and tone around enforcement of federal anti-discrimination rules in schools.

Betsy DeVos has little experience with public schools. What should she know about yours? Tell us here.

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.