Updated 2/7/16: Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education—but only because for the first time in history a vice president broke a tie vote for a cabinet nominee.
Here's some perspective.
Just a few short weeks ago, there was a defeatist sentiment that Donald Trump and the Republican leadership of both houses of Congress would be nearly impossible to thwart.
Yet within weeks of the confirmation vote, the Senate GOP and its allies were so desperate to confirm Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education—the Trump Administration’s most embattled Cabinet pick—that they made a national TV ad, and even invested in websites that pay users to contact senators in a last ditch effort to manufacture the appearance of some support for her. Regardless of the outcome, the uprising against Betsy DeVos shows that there is massive support for public schools nationwide.
Even if she is ultimately confirmed in the upcoming Senate vote on Tuesday— and that's a shockingly big if, considering how easily she was initially presumed to win this appointment—it will only be as the result of these pay-for-phone call schemes, TV ads, and a series of political games, including relying on the postponement of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’s confirmation vote for Attorney General so that he can still vote in favor of her appointment, with a tie-breaking vote to be cast by Vice President Mike Pence. But now that two GOP Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have pledged to oppose her confirmation, the possibility still exists that a third Republican senator could step up to vote down DeVos’s appointment.
DeVos’s misfortune is one of several heartening signs of a genuine resistance brewing in opposition to the Trump Administration. Since the Inauguration, Washington, D.C. has been the site of almost daily demonstrations against Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress. As I got ready to attend the Oppose Betsy DeVos rally in Upper Senate Park last Sunday, my husband casually asked, “Which of the protests are you heading to this morning? Should we meet up at the #NoBanNoWall action at the White House afterward?” At Union Station, I saw a number of people with double-sided protest signs, with opposition to Betsy DeVos on one side, and opposition to the Muslim Ban on the other.
More than a thousand people turned out in a vibrant display of creativity, with signs, shirts, and chants, all united in opposition to DeVos’s stunning lack of qualifications and understanding of basic aspects of public education, and her even more stunning tone-deafness to the concerns of public school students, teachers, and parents.
In response to DeVos’s baffling exchange with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who represents the students and teachers murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre—an exchange in which DeVos suggested teachers might need guns to fight grizzly bears —a Virginia Tech alumna told me, through tears, “I was at Virginia Tech when the shootings happened a decade ago, and there’s absolutely no place for guns on campus.”
Another protester, a Maryland special education teacher holding up an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) of the type special education teachers develop for their students—this one for Congress—said, “I worry about her lack of experience, and more than that, [I worry] about her lack of knowledge and empathy for students with disabilities. . . . If I find somebody I think will infringe upon my students’ rights, that they need in order to try to reclaim their life—that’s why I’m out here. My students need everything that they get, and somebody threatening that is somebody I have a problem with.”
Public school advocates often hear that our messages about the dangers of school privatization are too abstract for the general public to appreciate. But I even heard from a charter school teacher who was concerned about the excesses of the school privatization efforts funded by DeVos and her family. Holding a sign that said “Privatizing public services is the family business,” she said that “I’m pretty offended that someone has been nominated who has zero experience with our public school system at all. I think it’s another step along the way to privatizing public education, which ultimately will hurt our children and put more money in the pockets of corporate executives. One of the things I hate about proponents of ‘school choice’ is that one of the choices is never a high quality neighborhood school.”
Amid signs bearing statements like “You know it's bad when kindergarten teachers start marching!” and “Betsy DeVos has no IDEA” (a nod to her ignorance of the federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities), there was a spirit of “enough is enough” when it comes to attacks on public schools that I found affirming as a longtime education activist. Education advocates have had to fight for years to get other Americans to take attacks on public schools as seriously as we do. Though nearly everyone agrees their local public schools could use more funding, people often don't make the connection between their school’s struggle for the basics and the larger effort to undermine institutions that serve the public in order to extract profits for a powerful few. Even among progressives, it has been a battle to create a shared consciousness about education issues, which aren't often as grabby as other causes.
The power of multi-faceted protests and civic engagement that created the snarl around the DeVos appointment should also be taken as an example of what to do for literally every other effort put forth by the Trump Administration. The strategic combination of calls to representatives, online organizing and protests in cities and towns nationwide and in Washington, DC, is a constant reminder to everyone in our federal government that they still have the American people to answer to when it comes to matters of government, and most of us didn't vote for them. We should all be quite clear that no matter who occupies the Cabinet and other posts in the federal government, they're most likely going to be asked to carry out oppressive policies on behalf of the white supremacist crew running things on Pennsylvania Avenue. We need to be ready to keep this level of pressure on them in order to protect our own, and our children’s, civil and human rights.