Betsy DeVos looks likely to be confirmed as President Donald Trump’s education secretary on Tuesday, notwithstanding Senate Democrats’ dramatic 24-hour talkathon against the controversial cabinet pick. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to break a tie vote, rescuing a nominee now opposed by every Democratic senator as well as Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.
But the silver lining for Democrats is that DeVos—a billionaire GOP donor with a track record of hostility to public education—emerges from this confirmation fight badly damaged politically. Her hearing exposed a basic lack of knowledge about education policy, and there’s been widespread public opposition. It may well hobble her ability to enact her agenda, and public education advocates—including the heads of the nation’s two largest teachers unions—are pledging a constant campaign against her conservative policies if she’s confirmed.
“No one’s taking their foot off the gas,” Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said in an interview at a Monday rally against DeVos on Capitol Hill.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who also spoke at the event, told The New Republic that sustained DeVos opposition would come to resemble conservative backlash to the Affordable Care Act in President Barack Obama’s first term. “I think what you’re going to see is a lot of grassroots action, just like with the Tea Party, over and over and over again,” she said. “The Tea Party started because they were convinced—even though it was untrue—that Obamacare was taking something away from them—their Medicare, their Medicaid, their Social Security. Here what’s happening is Betsy DeVos is really taking away something from them.”
Neither union leader was ready to talk tactics. (“Until you see what she specifically rolls out, you’re not going to know what the fight back is,” Weingarten said.) But Eskelsen García said DeVos is “coalescing the most diverse group of advocates that we’ve ever seen,” from social justice groups to business leaders. “They’re all interested in the contact list that we have,” she said, “and we’re interested in the contact lists that they have. We’re all going to be of one mind about watchdogging—bulldogging—the Department of Education under her leadership.” Plus, she said, her union now has a database of people passionate about this issue; a million people used their online portal to email senators urging them to oppose DeVos.
Eskelsen García predicted the resistance to DeVos will find unlikely allies in Republican governors and state legislators across the country, who might bristle at an overbearing education secretary telling them what to do in their states. She and Weingarten both noted that the last big federal overhaul of education—the Every Students Succeeds Act, which replaced the universally unpopular No Child Left Behind law in 2015—earned substantial GOP support precisely because it reined in overreach from Washington.
Beyond applying political pressure to Republican members of Congress, the union leaders acknowledged their power to stop DeVos is limited. “There is no magic wand,” Eskelsen García said. “There is absolutely nothing that will stop these people from the dangerous agenda they have of profitize, privatize and ... throw a middle-class child into the street saying, ‘Let them eat for-profit vouchers.’”
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, told reporters at the rally that DeVos’s confirmation process will have real repercussions for the GOP. “There are going to be millions of angry parents and teachers out there calling for the heads of Republican senators that vote for DeVos despite this groundbreaking opposition to her,” he said.
“Her power is going to be whether she can get the laws changed here, and the fact that she’s going to be a fairly weak secretary of education means that it’s not likely she’s going to be able to get major changes,” he added. “I can’t see Republicans rallying to her side as a political figure, so if she’s the face of any major changes in education policy I just don’t think she is likely to be persuasive with Republicans in the way that she might have been had her hearing gone differently.”
But this will also depend on her opponents remaining vocal.
“Do not give up this sense of outrage,” Murphy told the rally-goers. “What we are all petrified about is that the outrage you feel today will dissipate.”
“We’re just getting started!” shouted a man in the crowd.