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How Betsy DeVos Became Trump's Least Popular Cabinet Pick

California Teachers Association President Eric Heins speaks as California educators voice their opposition to President Trump's nomination of Besty DeVos for secretary of education, at a meeting in Los Angeles on Jan. 28.
Reed Saxon
California Teachers Association President Eric Heins speaks as California educators voice their opposition to President Trump's nomination of Besty DeVos for secretary of education, at a meeting in Los Angeles on Jan. 28.

Of all President Trump's Cabinet choices, only one currently seems at serious risk of being denied confirmation by the Senate.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary is a question mark after two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced they plan to vote against her.

The Senate cut off debate Friday after a procedural vote. Assuming no other GOP defectors, and no Democrats who cross over to support her, this could place Vice President Pence in the unprecedented position of casting a tiebreaker vote early next week to push the president's nominee through. Jeff Sessions' confirmation as attorney general is also being held up so he can vote for DeVos as the senator from Alabama.

DeVos is one of several billionaires named to Trump's Cabinet. She's not the only one seemingly lacking in background knowledge or qualifications to run a major federal bureaucracy: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with no prior governmental experience, has been named to lead the housing agency. Nor, with a record that favors vouchers over public schools, is DeVos the only appointee to have seemingly opposed the agency she is now poised to run: Rick Perry famously said he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy, and Scott Pruitt sued the Environmental Protection Agency more than a dozen times.

Yet it is DeVos' nomination that has spawned massive opposition across the Internet, and from both sides of the aisle.

Heidi Hess runs campaigns for CREDO, a mobile phone company with an activist arm that has been backing progressive causes for 30 years. When Trump's Cabinet picks were announced, CREDO held a strategy meeting and chose a "top terrible" list of appointees, dubbed the #SwampySeven in reference to his vows to "drain the swamp."

But, Hess says, nobody has gotten people as enraged as DeVos. Activists made 30,000 phone calls to Senate offices and smashed CREDO's record for petition signatures, she said. "A million and a half is just unprecedented," she says. "It's another scale of magnitude."

So why has DeVos garnered such strong opposition?

Sen. Lamar Alexander, one of her biggest proponents in Congress, has written that her opponents are "grasping at straws" and simply "resent" her support for choice.

Several conservative media outlets have pointed out that Murkowski and Collins have received donations and support from teachers unions.

The people who have been organizing against her have a few other theories.

Americans like their public schools

Nine out of 10 students in this country attend public school. And national polls consistently show that a majority of Americans, across the aisle,approve of their neighborhood schools.

They oppose closing them down, even when they are low-performing.

So DeVos's rhetoric about replacing "failed" public schools with charters and vouchers may have rubbed many people — even Trump supporters — the wrong way.

"It's not just Democrats. There are a lot of Republicans and independents who don't want DeVos. [They want] public education," says Zephyr Teachout, a Democratic activist, who has been organizing in opposition to all of Trump's Cabinet picks.

This may be especially true in rural states like Collins' Maine and Murkowski's Alaska. School choice is harder to implement in more sparsely populated parts of the country, where children may ride a bus long distances to the local school.

"I have heard from thousands, truly, thousands of Alaskans who have shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos," Murkowski said on the Senate floor.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which has received funding from DeVos' family foundations, sees a different force at work. He says the unions' grass-roots organizing power is what's really being flexed. "Every red state has an active, engaged network of teachers and allies willing to light up the switchboard."

Even some choice advocates don't like DeVos' brand of choice

Some school-choice proponents like Hess, and Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy charter network, a Democrat, have publicly supported her. But other school-choice backers, including philanthropist Eli Broad and the Democrats for Education Reform, have nevertheless opposed DeVos.

"As important as choice is, that by itself isn't the answer," says Shavar Jeffries, the president of DFER. "A strong commitment to accountability is key."

On that issue, opponents focused on a key exchange in her hearing when Sen. Tim Kaine, D.Va., pressed her as to whether charter, public and private schools should be held to the same accountability standards. "Well, no," was her final answer.

In addition, says Jeffries, "Her Michigan record gave pause to a lot of folks." Many charter schools in Detroit, where DeVos backed a variety of free market choice measures with less oversight than elsewhere, have underperformed public schools.

She seemed uniquely unprepared

DeVos testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Jan. 17.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
DeVos testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Jan. 17.

Many critics cite DeVos' much criticized performance at her confirmation hearing, videos of which have circulated widely. She has never taught in, worked in or sent her children to a public school, and many opponents believe it showed. She seemed not to understand elements of a major federal education law — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

When Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked, "were you unaware when I just asked you about the IDEA that it was a federal law?" DeVos responded, "I may have confused it."

"The more people who watched her performance in that hearing, the more they see how ill-equipped DeVos is to do the mission, the more outraged regular Americans have gotten," says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. "DeVos is the least qualified, the most ill-prepared and the most hostile to public education of anyone who's ever had that role."

Is gender at play?

DeVos is one of just two female Cabinet appointees. The other, Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, served in a previous administration, making her one of Trump's most uncontroversial picks.

"It could be the gender thing," says Hess. "If it had been Republican senators treating a Democratic nominee the way Al Franken treated her, the gender story would have been much more prominent."

Hess was referring to harsh questions at DeVos' confirmation hearing from Franken, a Minnesota Democrat.

"I was kind of surprised — well, I'm not that surprised — that you don't know this issue," Franken said at one point when questioning DeVos about methods of evaluating student performance.

Thurston Domina, an associate professor of education policy at the University of North Carolina, circulated a letter opposing DeVos' nomination that was signed by more than 500 education scholars.

"I think there's a gendered thing," to how harshly DeVos has been judged, he says. "She's no more clueless or ideologically awful than some other appointees, but we have a cultural role for a man who's sort of a cowboy and comes in."

A woman who looks clueless, he argues, gets no such slack: "She's a lady who lunches."

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Corrected: February 2, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Broad Foundation had taken a position against Betsy DeVos. Because of its tax-exempt status, the foundation cannot engage in political activity.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.