WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as Education secretary by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie in a historic vote.
Two Republicans joined Democrats in the unsuccessful effort to derail the nomination of the wealthy Republican donor. The Senate historian said Pence's vote was the first by a vice president to break a tie on a Cabinet nomination.
Democrats cited her lack of public school experience and financial interests in organizations pushing charter schools. DeVos has said she would divest herself from those organizations.
Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska fear that DeVos' focus on charter schools will undermine remote public schools in their states.
Despite the win, DeVos emerges bruised from the highly divisive nomination process. She has faced criticism, even ridicule for her stumbles and confusion during her confirmation hearing and scathing criticism from teachers unions and civil rights activists over her support of charter schools and her conservative religious ideology.
President Donald Trump accused Democrats of seeking to torpedo education progress. In a tweet before the vote, he wrote "Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!" Pence tweeted later in the day that supporting DeVos was "a vote for every child having a chance at a world-class education."
Devos, 59, is the wife of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway marketing fortune. She has spent more than two decades promoting charter schools and publicly funded voucher programs for private schools in her home state of Michigan and in other states.
Democrats were quick to denounce the confirmation.
"President Trump's swamp got a new billionaire today," the Democratic National Committee said in a statement. "Millions of teachers, parents and students could not have made their opposition to Betsy DeVos' confirmation any clearer — they do not want someone whose only education experience is dismantling public schools."
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee vowed to continue championing quality public education in America.
"We may not have won this fight today, but people across the country have stood up and made their voices heard on the importance of strong public education in America, and we are not going to stand down."
DeVos supporters, however, saw her confirmation as an occasion to breathe new life into troubled American school system and a chance to shift power from Washington to the local level.
"She has been a leader in the movement for public charter schools — the most successful reform of public education during the last thirty years," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the education committee. "And she has worked tirelessly to help low-income children have more choices of better schools."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said DeVos will seek to empower states, not federal bureaucrats, to make important education decisions.
"I know that she is committed to improving our education system so that every child — every child — has a brighter future," McConnell said ahead of the vote.
Emotions ran high ahead of the vote as constituents jammed senators' phone lines with calls and protesters gathered outside the Capitol, including one person in a grizzly bear costume to ridicule DeVos' comment during her confirmation hearing that some schools might want guns to protect against grizzlies. Her opponents also charge that DeVos has no experience to run public schools, having never attended one or sent her children to a public school.
DeVos has provided few details about her policy agenda. She will have to weigh in on the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act and possibly undo some of the previous administration's regulation initiatives on school accountability and spending, which have been criticized by Republicans as federal overreach. Rules on such things as accountability already have been on hold.
She will have to address several hot-button issues in higher education, such as rising tuition costs, growing student debt and the troubled for-profit colleges, many of which have closed down, leaving students with huge loans and without a good education or job prospects. Observers will pay close attention to how DeVos deals with sexual assault and freedom of speech on campuses.
DeVos will also have to react to Trump's campaign proposal of funneling $20 billion of public funds toward school vouchers.
In addition to DeVos, Republicans hope to confirm a series of other divisive nominees this week: Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, GOP Rep. Tom Price of Georgia as health secretary and financier Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary.