Friday, February 3, 2017
When news broke a couple of days ago that two republican senators would vote against confirming Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education, speculation over the possibility that she might not be confirmed went into hyper-drive. If just one more senator defected, DeVos would fail and there were five or more republican senators who, due to politics in their home states, might very well vote against her. Given that opposition to her was not just political, but basic competency, picking off just one senator seemed possible. After all, some major charter school advocates had even come out against her. If her confirmation died, it is not clear that anyone other than Donald Trump would be personally bothered (although those whose bundle campaign contributions might feel the pain). The past two days seemed to dash those hopes, however, as one, after another, Senators Rubio, Toomey, Heller, Fischer and others have indicated support for her.
This morning at 6:30 a.m., the full Senate began the process of voting on her. For procedural reasons, the final vote will not happen until Monday or Tuesday. I would not rule out a last minute surprise, but odds are that she will be confirmed. Some will see this as a loss, but at this point, the vote does not really matter. Those who want to protect education have already won. Here's why.
First, Trump is not going to nominate anyone that public education supporters will like. He has all but called public schools cesspools of financial waste and failure. If Betsy DeVos fails, Trump would double down on undermining education, not moderate. So a no vote on DeVos would be a moral victory, but not necessarily a practical one.
Second, Trump would be unlikely to make the same mistake twice in terms of appointing an incompetent Secretary. Often times, blocking a nominee draws a concession of sorts, but because the problem with DeVos is competency, the concession--if there was one-would be on credentials. Trump's second nominee would likely have some education experience and knowledge. If so, that person would sail through and look strong by comparison. Finding such a person would be easy. As I pointed out, Betsy DeVos may be in the top one percent in terms of wealth, but she is probably in the bottom twenty-five percent in terms of education knowledge.
Third, someone with competency would be more dangerous than DeVos. As I pointed out here, DeVos does not appear to really understand the nature of the Secretary's job. If she does not understand her job, it is reasonable to predict she might not be able to do much with it. True, she offers no hopes for those who want to see improvements in education, but it is possible she might just be irrelevant.
Fourth, and here is the key to why she might become entirely irreverent, this bruising confirmation and the possibility of only being confirmed by virtue of Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote has mortally wounded Betsy DeVos. She may become Secretary of Education, but she will not have a bully-pulpit or political support. So many groups have come out against her publicly that she has lost what would have been her presumptive base. And everyone is now clear that she is unqualified for the job. Why would they listen to her? And she has fired teacher unions and supporters who would normally take a measured approach. Even those senators who vote for her are unlikely to stick their necks out for her in the future.
The skeptic might say, yeah, but if she wins, she has power and can do what she wants. Fortunately, that is just not true. As a reaction to Secretary Duncan's overreach with No Child Left Behind waivers, the Every Student Succeeds Act severely restricted the powers of the Secretary. As I explain here, the Act shifted an enormous amount of power and discretion back to the states, reducing the Secretary to a paper-pusher.
The Secretary, as paper-pusher, is free to cheer-lead for the policies he or she likes, but that is about it. The silver-lining of this confirmation is that DeVos is a cheerleader that half of the Senate wants to tar and feather and another third wants to just go away and not be seen any more. After all, her nominal supports are smart enough--I hope--to remember they have already taken away the Secretary's power, so what difference does it make if she is incompetent.
For a number of reasons, including symbolism and leadership, I think competence does matter and my idealism still wants to see her voted down because it just is not right to have someone who lacks basic qualifications to rise to this level. But given the way things are shaking out, those who support schools and competency may have already won.