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.

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

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.