Today the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as President Trump's education secretary, 51-50. Vice President Pence had to cast an unprecedented tie-breaking vote, after hearings that became fodder for Saturday Night Live; after angry constituents swamped Senate offices with 1.5 million calls a day; after two Republican senators defected; and Democrats held the floor overnight in protest.
The 59-year-old philanthropist and activist from Michigan takes over the leadership and management of a federal bureaucracy with 4,400 employees and a $68 billion annual budget.
Now, the question is: How much will actually change for the nation's 50 million public school students and 20 million college students?
Perhaps her opponents should take a deep breath. The federal role in education policy is limited. Less than 10 percent of funding for K-12 schools comes from the feds, for example.
That said, here's what we'll be watching in the coming weeks and months.
On the higher ed side
The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization. Three issues that may come up early in a DeVos Education Department: the role of for-profits, college costs and enforcement of Title IX (which governs sex discrimination, including sexual assault cases).
- On Title IX: DeVos said in her hearing that it would be "premature" to say she would uphold department guidance that asks colleges to take an active role against sexual assault.
- On college costs: "Free tuition" proposals drew a lot of Democratic fans during the presidential campaign. DeVos was dismissive of the idea in her hearing: "There's nothing in life that's truly free."
- On for-profit colleges: During the Obama administration, the department, along with the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, went after many for-profit colleges, with allegations of fraud and predatory lending. Two were forced to shut down: Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. Meanwhile, the gainful employment rule required colleges to demonstrate that they were preparing a significant percentage of their students for the job market. When questioned by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., DeVos said she would "review" rather than uphold that rule.
On the K-12 side
The headline here is: More state decision-making power.
Regular readers of our NPR Ed blog know that the main K-12 education law was reauthorized last year as the Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, which covers annual testing, among other things. The new law gave more authority to the states, at the expense of the federal government, to identify and remedy failing schools.
The Trump administration has already paused the process of ESSA implementation. Republicans in Congress have moved to use a little-known law called the Congressional Review Act to throw out the new accountability rules altogether. That leaves states in a situation that some Democrats and advocates have dubbed "chaos and delay." Other groups, including the National Governors Association, have said they welcome having still more authority at the state level.
Some civil rights advocates have raised concerns that, in the absence of a strong federal hand, some states will be less vigilant than others in identifying and correcting historic educational inequities of race and class.
DeVos' responses to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in her controversial written questionnaire, indicate that she comes down on the side of states' rights: "It is necessary and critical for states to have flexibility to determine how to identify and improve schools."
DeVos' department may take a leaf from Arne Duncan's book and set up a competitive grant program that encourages states to expand school choice. If so, we'll likely be hearing more about the benefits of private, virtual, religious and for-profit schools.
The school reforms DeVos backed in Michigan have favored for-profit charter school operators. And her husband previously held financial stakes in the for-profit and online K12 Inc., whose numbers she (erroneously) cited in defending virtual schools in her written answers to the Senate.
The organization she chaired, the American Federation for Children, favors both vouchers and a device called "tax credit scholarships," which allows companies to offset tax liability by funding students to attend private schools. In Florida, which the AFC has called out as a model program, 70 percent of these scholarships go to religiously affiliated schools.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Today, a first in the Senate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative, and the nomination is confirmed.
MCEVERS: Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as President Trump's education secretary. A tiebreaker like that hasn't happened before with a Cabinet nominee. With two Republican senators siding with Democrats against DeVos, it was one of the most bruising Cabinet fights in recent memory.
Now the question is, what does DeVos' confirmation mean for the nation's 50 million public school students and 20 million college students? For that, we turn to Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team, who's been following this story and is with us now. Hi there.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So tell us first why DeVos' nomination was so controversial.
KAMENETZ: Well, as Senator Chuck Schumer put it during the extended floor debate, DeVos represented in some people's eyes a negative trifecta. There were questions about her qualifications as somebody who's never worked in schools, about her philosophy - she was seen as favoring privatization - and about her ethics as a billionaire GOP donor who had given tens of thousands of dollars even to some of the senators who voted against her.
And you know, I think on a broader level, there's been so much organizing energy among people that are opposed to the Trump agenda, and it all just coalesced around this one nominee.
MCEVERS: She did win the confirmation, though. So why did so many senators vote for her?
KAMENETZ: Well, her supporters in the GOP were led by Lamar Alexander, who's a longtime chair of the committee, and they lauded her as an outsider, as someone who's very well equipped because of her record to fulfill both the desire for local control, which is seen across a lot of the GOP when it comes to education, as well as increased access to choice, which is something that Trump did talk a lot about during his campaign.
MCEVERS: So remind us exactly what the secretary of education actually does.
KAMENETZ: Well, it's both a symbolic role and a substantive one. You know, the Ed Department is a big federal bureaucracy. They collect a lot of information about our schools. They're responsible for accountability, for testing, enforcing that. The department covers Title I funding for poor students. IDEA is the education act that covers students with disabilities. And they also administer federal grants and loans which are so important for our college students.
MCEVERS: Given that DeVos is a big proponent of school choice, how do you think she'll promote that as education secretary?
KAMENETZ: Well, it's funny. She may do it the same way her Democratic predecessor, Arne Duncan, did through some kind of competitive grant program that encourages states. And they - she can't compel them, but she can encourage them to promote choice with a little bit of incentive money. And during the campaign, Trump started throwing around the figure of $20 billion for a choice in vouchers.
We don't really know where that money might come from, but DeVos' organization, the one that she chaired before she became education secretary, highlighted a device called tax credit scholarships, and this is a way that corporations can offset their tax liability and donate directly to scholarships for students to attend private schools. And the reason that this is sort of favored as a new twist on vouchers is that it's revenue-neutral in a sense, and you don't have to pass a new tax or new allocation to fund it.
MCEVERS: What are some of the other issues she'll be taking on?
KAMENETZ: On the higher education side, DeVos said in her hearing that she wanted to, quote, "review rules that require colleges to actively police sexual assault," and that is a concern for some campus activists. And she's also perceived as being friendlier towards for-profit colleges as well.
MCEVERS: You talked about how states and local governments already have so much control. In what areas can we see DeVos making her mark?
KAMENETZ: Well, some civil rights advocates have raised concerns that with a federal hand who really has expressed her belief that states should be making a lot of decisions, that there's going to be less enforcement of kind of key regulations across the country that have to do with GLBT equality, that have to do with civil rights, with segregation as well as the interests of kids with disabilities.
MCEVERS: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. Thank you.
KAMENETZ: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA SONG, "TRAFFIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.