How Betsy DeVos could reshape national education policy

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump looks on as his choice for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S. December 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTX2UD61

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AUDIE CORNISH: Now let’s turn back to the contentious confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next secretary of education.

The vote was razor-thin. And, tonight, we look at how it went down, what DeVos can do as education secretary, and the limits of her power.

It’s the focus of our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

Lisa Desjardins gets us started.

MIKE PENCE, Vice President of the United States: On this vote, the yeas are 50, the nays are 50. The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative. hand the nomination is confirmed.

LISA DESJARDINS: It marked the first time a vice president presiding over the Senate has broken a tie to confirm a Cabinet secretary, a dramatic ending to the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education.

And it came after 24 straight hours of debate, when Democrats held a rare overnight speech-a-thon to oppose DeVos. But the primary doubt came from two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Both said DeVos’ confirmation hearing led them to vote no.

Democrats like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown tried to persuade other Republicans.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN, D-Ohio: As many have said on this floor, based on her confirmation hearing, it appears she has a complete lack of knowledge as to what the Department of Education actually does.

LISA DESJARDINS: But a number of Republicans, like Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, defended DeVos.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER, R-Tenn.: She has led the most effective public school reform movement over the last 30 years. And I urge you to give the new Republican president the opportunity to choose his own education secretary.

LISA DESJARDINS: DeVos is known as a school choice activist, who supports for-profit charter schools, and wants public funds to be used as vouchers for private schools.

She’s also a billionaire, who, along with her family, has donated heavily to Republicans. In the end, she survived the toughest fight for any Trump nominee yet, and Vice President Pence swore her in late today.

AUDIE CORNISH: And Lisa joins me now.

And, Lisa, outs of all of these nominees, this one ended up giving the Trump administration the most trouble. What happened?

LISA DESJARDINS: Well, I think that there was an overwhelming response from America.

Part of that, we know, was individual voters following Betsy DeVos’ hearings who called their senators. But let’s not kid ourselves. There was also a huge organizational push, largely by teachers unions.

I talked to the National Education Association. They said they directed 1.1 million emails toward senators. And then also the American Federation of Teachers, 2,000 actions from them.

These were unions making a huge push. They came close, Audie, but, in the end, this is also a tale of unions. They still have influence. They can still mobilize. But they don’t have decisive influence anymore. They lost.

AUDIE CORNISH: Right, close, but no cigar.

LISA DESJARDINS: Yes.

AUDIE CORNISH: The thing is, that is the outside opposition.

What about Democrats on the inside? What were they able to do? Because I know they were able to try to peel off a Republican in the last minute.

LISA DESJARDINS: I think Democrats thought this outside push was going to do it and win over another Republican.

But you talk to the Republicans who voted no, like Susan Collins today, and she said what did it for her what Betsy DeVos herself, that the hearing just changed Susan Collins’ mind. And, in addition, the voices she was listening to were those of teachers in her state.

She said the superintendent of the Bangor School District, also superintendent from an island school district, those voices said to her, we don’t like Betsy DeVos, we don’t trust her to run our education system. And that’s who Susan Collins listened to.

AUDIE CORNISH: What does this mean going forward for her relationship, say, with Capitol Hill, right? Is this…

(CROSSTALK)

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

They do have an oversight role, of course, over everything in the agencies. But, for the most part, I think, Audie, this is over. Republicans, including Susan Collins, say they want to move on. They’re hoping the education secretary, now that she’s confirmed, does well.

But I think watch Democrats, because this is just another very difficult political decision for them. Do they keep opposing everything the way their base is pressuring them, or, as Dick Durbin said to me, do they try and take a deep breath and see what’s actually winnable, what could actually change something.

Our producer Pam Kirkland talked to Dianne Feinstein. She just kind of shook her head and said, “It is what it is.”

AUDIE CORNISH: Lisa, thanks so much.

LISA DESJARDINS: My pleasure.

AUDIE CORNISH: With the confirmation battle behind her, what can Betsy DeVos do now? What exactly is in her power to change at the Education Department.

Emma Brown of The Washington Post has written about this.

Welcome.

And, Emma, I want to start by asking you about what the education secretary can actually do on her own, right? We have seen an administration that’s willing to use executive power in trying to deal with regulations. What does that mean for an education secretary?

EMMA BROWN, The Washington Post: There are certain things that the education secretary absolutely can do on her own now.

One of the really important areas is civil rights. And civil rights advocates are really worried actually about what Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration will do in this realm.

They could really easily with the stroke of a pen rescind or revise the Obama administration’s controversial guidance on transgender students’ accommodations in public schools. Similarly, they can reverse the guidance that has really pushed schools and colleges to handle complaints of sexual violence differently.

So, there is a whole realm of civil rights enforcement and investigation that is really under Betsy DeVos’ management now.

AUDIE CORNISH: With both the Obama administration and the Bush administration, there were times when their Education Departments and secretaries were accused of overreach. Right?

They faced massive backlash over federal initiatives. What has that shown us about the limits of power for the education secretary?

EMMA BROWN: Yes, the Obama administration took the power of the Education Department to its limits.

And what we saw was a backlash from Congress. Congress didn’t appreciate that, and, in the end, you know, passed with overwhelming majorities a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that really reined in the education secretary’s authority and shifted quite a bit of authority from the federal government in general back to states and local districts.

And so there is a real sensitivity right now in Washington to the federal role in education, and Republicans really want to see that federal role shrunken.

AUDIE CORNISH: That being said, we know that candidate Donald Trump advocated for block grants to states to support school choice programs. So, now that he will have an education secretary who also believes in vouchers and school choice, what is the appetite on Capitol Hill for something like that, right? They hold the purse strings. They would have to approve the legislation to make it happen.

EMMA BROWN: Absolutely.

And this is where she, Betsy DeVos, is going to need cooperation from Congress, you know, either in the budget language or in legislation. So, Trump’s proposal was a $20 billion proposal, which is really huge. We spend $15 billion right now on Title I funds, which is all the money that goes from the federal government to support schools that serve lots of kids who are low-income.

So, $20 billion is huge. I think that a lot of folks in the education community saw that as a really heavy lift, even before all this pushback against DeVos. But there are other ways she can promote school choice. They can do it through tax code overhaul.

They can look for examples like the D.C. voucher program. We have the only federally funded voucher program here in D.C. — to expand that. And so there will be, I think, at least the beginnings of efforts to expand school choice, maybe on a smaller scale first, before going to those bigger pushes.

AUDIE CORNISH: Given the fight over her nomination, what do you see as the political kind of hurdles going forward?

EMMA BROWN: Well, I think that the folks who have opposed her, including the teachers unions, but also civil rights advocates and the folks who just weren’t connected to either of those groups, but just came out against her because they said they believed in public schools, I think the goal of the opponents of Betsy DeVos is going to have to continue mobilizing those forces to watch everything she does and to continue applying pressure on Congress to serve as a watchdog.

So, I think, you know, she’s going to have to prove that she is an advocate for sort of this whole constituency that came out against her in the last few weeks.

AUDIE CORNISH: Emma Brown of The Washington Post, thank you.

EMMA BROWN: Thanks.

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