Updated at 4:45 p.m.
Washington – With the help of Vice President Mike Pence, the Senate on Tuesday confirmed charter school advocate Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Department of Education.
Democrats, who all voted against the nominee, said DeVos was woefully unfit for the job. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, also voted against the nominee, resulting in a 50-50 tie that required Pence, who was waiting in the wings, to cast the deciding vote to approve DeVos 51-50. It was the first time a vice president cast a tie-breaking vote for a cabinet nominee.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy participated in an all-night debate by Senate Democrats to win one more Republican vote.
“We need one more Republican to do what is right,” pleaded Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called DeVos “the most unqualified” of President Donald Trump’s nominees.
A wealthy Republican fund-raiser and philanthropist, DeVos faced vociferous opposition from Democratic lawmakers, teachers’ unions, civil rights groups and groups representing disabled students.
During her confirmation hearing last month, DeVos had trouble with a number of questions, stumbling on those about the law protecting students with disabilities and the metrics used to assess student progress.
But it was her answer to Murphy, a member of the Senate panel that held the hearing on DeVos, that ripped up the twitterverse and provided rich fodder for comedians.
In response to Murphy’s question about DeVos’s position on guns in schools, DeVos said there may be instances when weapons in school houses are necessary to fend of grizzly bears.
“I stand with her and her grizzly,” said Gwen Samuel, the founder and president of CT Parent’s Union, a statewide group that seeks to empower the role of parents in education.
“She believes in a parent’s right to choose; she centers her discussions around parents and the rights they have to do the best for their children,” said Samuels, whose children attend public schools in Meriden. “We are celebrating today.”
DeVos was an advocate of school vouchers and charter schools in her native Michigan.
Janeene Freeman, CEO of the Northeast Charter School Network, a group that supports charter schools, said, “We are willing to work with her and her administration.”
“I know she is a very controversial pick,” Freeman said. “We hope she will have staff in place to help her direct policy.”
While proponents of charter schools and school choice hailed the confirmation, DeVos took her position on President Trump’s cabinet Tuesday facing a solid block of opposition.
“While the odds were not in our favor and we are certainly disappointed with the outcome, we succeeded in raising the level of public opposition to DeVos and her anti-public education schemes to new heights,” said Connecticut Education Association President Sheila Cohen.
Wendy Lecker, an attorney with the Education Law Center, an organization that supports public schools, joined critics who said DeVos is not fit for her job.
“During her (confirmation) hearing, she clearly demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge about education practices,” Lecker said.
Lecker said DeVos and her husband supported “unregulated’ and poorly performing charter schools in Michigan and would continue to promote them as education secretary.
While the federal government’s share of local school funding is minimal, those dollars overwhelmingly go to poor school districts “where every dollar counts,” Lecker said.
The threat of sanctions and enticement of more federal funds dollars can press school districts to “upend” their policies and curriculums, resulting in poorer quality education, Lecker said.
Meanwhile, the Newtown Action Alliance said, “It’s a sad day for all school children, educators, and parents in America.”
“The majority of Republican members of the U.S. Senate confirmed an unqualified billionaire who supports the NRA’s ‘guns in schools’ agenda,” the gun control group said in a statement.
In an early morning floor speech against the nomination, Blumenthal said DeVos is “antithetical to the very mission of the department she has been named to lead.”
“She is unquestionably unqualified, unknowledgeable, unprepared for this job. She is unfit to run the Department of Education,” Blumenthal said.
Murphy criticized DeVos’s support of vouchers, which give parents financial help to pay tuition at private schools. Murphy said vouchers don’t give poor parents enough aid to send their children to good private schools and subsidize tuitions for wealthy parents, stripping resources from public schools.
Even worse, Murphy said, vouchers to parents of disabled students come with a high price tag. “They have to renounce their legal right to an adequate [public] education,” he said.
“In practice, vouchers are a disaster,” Murphy said.
Murphy also said DeVos has no experience with the public school system, having sent her children, and having herself attended, private schools instead.
“In fact she has spent her entire career and her family’s enormous fortune trying to undermine the public school system,” he said.