Calling public education “the closest thing to magic in America,” U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina Tuesday closed out a marathon 24-hour debate on secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos with a strong defense of her plans for schools.
The defense came just minutes before DeVos was confirmed by a razor-thin majority in the Senate. The vote ended in a 50-50 tie among senators, with Scott and fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham supporting DeVos. Vice President Mike Pence was called in to cast the deciding vote.
The vote was seen as perhaps the best chance that Democrats had to defeat one of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
The tie vote had been expected. Republicans in the Senate hold a 52-48 majority but U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said last week they would vote against DeVos.
Scott made his defense of DeVos just before the vote, after Democrats had spent most of the previous 24 hours lambasting Trump’s choice to head the Department of Education.
Buoyed by what they called an “unprecedented” level of phone calls from opponents of the nomination, Democrats said the Michigan businesswoman and charter school advocate was uniquely unqualified to lead the Education Department.
Senators questioned her lack of a degree in education administration, and the track record of what they called a failing charter school system in Michigan that she influenced. They cast her as an enemy of public schools and civil rights, especially for students with disabilities.
However, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Democrats’ distaste for DeVos could be chalked up to differing views between the parties on the best way to educate students. He called her charter school system a success, yielding the floor to Scott.
Scott noted he had almost dropped out of high school, “before I found a path with quality public education.” He said he thanked God for public education.
But, he added, “Far too many kids, too many millions of kids, do not have a high level education available.”
As voting was about to begin, Scott took on one more Democratic fear, that DeVos would privatize U.S. public education.
“The secretary of education cannot privatize public education,” he said. “That would take an act of Congress.”
In a statement, Graham said: “As a graduate of Daniel High School and the University of South Carolina, I’m a product of public education and a strong believer in public schools. However, I also believe that if public education fails a student, the system must be pushed to change. It’s long overdue that we bring this type of outside-the-box thinking to our education system.”