Tight vote

Alexander, Corker side with DeVos as Trump’s pick confirmed as U.S. ed chief

PHOTO: C-SPAN
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee speaks to the U.S. Senate just minutes before the vote that confirmed the nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education.

After hearing months of spirited debate on the nomination of Betsy DeVos, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker joined other Senate Republicans on Tuesday to help confirm the Michigan billionaire as the nation’s next secretary of education.

Tennessee’s two senators voted in favor of DeVos to help create a 50-50 tie. Vice President Mike Pence quickly broke the impasse by approving President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

The vote came after Alexander urged his colleagues to support DeVos following a Democrat-led vigil that attempted to derail her nomination.

“I’m voting for Betsy DeVos because she will implement our law fixing No Child Left Behind the way we wrote it: to reverse the trend to a national school board and restore control to classroom teachers, to local school boards, to governors and legislators,” said Alexander, himself a former U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Alexander also cited DeVos’s work at “the forefront of one of the most important public school reforms in the last 30 years — public charter schools; and because she has worked tirelessly to give low-income children more the same kind of choices that wealthy families have.”

As chairman of the Senate panel that advanced her nomination, the Tennessee Republican has been in the national spotlight in the debate.

Only minutes before he spoke, Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat with whom Alexander co-authored the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, criticized Senate leaders for “cutting corners and rushing” to a hearing and a vote. She also questioned DeVos’s financial alliances and cited potential conflicts of interest.

Alexander responded that DeVos had testified before Congress longer and answered significantly more questions than either of President Obama’s two education chiefs. He noted that DeVos has worked with the Office of Government Ethics to comply with laws and regulations governing potential conflicts of interest.

“So, plenty of time for questions. No conflict of interests. What’s the problem?” Alexander asked the Senate.

Tennesseans have flooded both senators’ offices with phone calls and emails voicing their opinions about the embattled DeVos.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pamela Moses, co-founder of Memphis’ chapter of Black Lives Matter, speaks at a Jan. 30 rally protesting DeVos’s nomination.

Her detractors held numerous demonstrations last week across Tennessee, and state Democrats rallied opponents to contact Alexander and Corker over the weekend. Most in opposition cited her lack of experience in public education. Devos has never been a teacher and has never attended or worked in public schools.

Spokeswomen for both senators sidestepped the question when asked Tuesday about the breakdown of calls over DeVos.

“Our office hears from thousands of Tennesseans each week on a wide range of issues,” said a statement from Corker’s office. “Senator Corker is aware of every call, letter and email we receive, and as always, he is grateful for input and appreciates his constituents sharing their thoughts with him.”

Supporters, including Corker and Alexander, have said that DeVos will bring a fresh perspective to the job and push for more opportunities for poor and disadvantaged children.

DeVos is wife of Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune. She has spent millions of dollars and more than two decades advocating for school choice issues such as charter schools and tuition vouchers in her home state of Michigan and other states across the nation, including Tennessee.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.