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Your Daily DeVos: With final vote looming, Democrats hold the floor

President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has exerted plenty of influence as a billionaire philanthropist, Michigan political figure, and school-choice advocate.

But she’s usually done so out of the spotlight. Now, as U.S. senators consider whether to confirm her as secretary, she’s coming under sharp scrutiny from lawmakers, policy wonks, journalists, and the general public.

That can make for an overwhelming crush of new information, and we’re here to help you keep up.

We’ll be highlighting the most important developments in the unspooling DeVos story until a final confirmation vote. Nominate the stories that help you by emailing us or tweeting with #dailyDeVos.

Here’s what caught our eye today:

Monday, Feb. 6

1. DeVos’s final confirmation vote is set for noon on Tuesday — and it’s still looking like Vice President Mike Pence will have to cast a historic tie-breaking vote.

2. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow offered some intrigue late Monday, telling CNN that there might be another Republican preparing to vote no.

3. California Sen. Kamala Harris cited Chalkbeat’s reporting on DeVos’s influence on charter schools in Detroit while explaining her opposition. Watch it here.

4. Democrats plan to hold the Senate floor all night as they speak out against DeVos, in what’s been described as a vigil, an all-nighter, a talkathon, and a protest.

Sunday, Feb. 5

1. Further evidence that DeVos has gotten unusual attention for an education secretary nominee: She was pilloried on Saturday Night Live (at 5:45 in the video below).

2. DeVos’s confirmation could come on Monday, and Vice President Mike Pence said he expects to cast the decisive vote. But critics kept up pressure over the weekend, with in-person protests, a New York Times editorial calling for another Republican to oppose her, and even a statement from an organization of rabbis.

3. Unusually, an independent group is running television ads to support DeVos — and paint her critics as out-of-touch liberals who are “full of rage and hate.” Plus, someone is paying people to lobby online in favor of her nomination.

Thursday, Feb. 2

1. DeVos got the votes she needed in the Senate’s education committee on Tuesday, but her nomination is now in danger after two Republican senators said they would cast their final votes against her. Vice President Mike Pence may end up casting the deciding vote.

2. Her confirmation also gained one notable opponent — another billionaire school choice advocate, Democrat Eli Broad, who urged senators to vote against her.

3. If DeVos isn’t confirmed, she’ll be the first Cabinet picked derailed by the party of the president in nearly 100 years.

4. A looming complication: If the Senate confirms its own member, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, to become attorney general, before the DeVos vote, Sessions wouldn’t be able to cast a vote the Republicans need.

5. Inspired by DeVos’s own giving, a Pennsylvania teacher launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy Sen. Pat Toomey’s confirmation vote. (Toomey has said he’s definitely voting for DeVos, who gave his campaign nearly $58,000.)

6. DeVos cited graduation rates for online charter schools that are significantly higher than their official rates in a defense of those schools in response to Sen. Patty Murray.

Monday, Jan. 30

1. The Senate education committee is set to vote on DeVos’s confirmation tomorrow — and she’s likely to get the votes she needs. Here’s why.

2. Twenty years ago, DeVos quietly supported a transgender woman’s request to use the women’s restroom at a call center.

3. Does DeVos support teaching intelligent design? Comments she made at her confirmation hearing have left some observers concerned.

4. Some liberal Christians say DeVos isn’t right for the job because of a perceived lack of concern for students with disabilities.

Friday, Jan. 27

1. Democrats are going to vote as a bloc against DeVos, according to Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. (That still won’t be enough to keep her from being confirmed.) And several senators are asking for more information about donations made to her political organizations.

2. DeVos’s influence has stretched far beyond Michigan: the Orlando Sentinel says her extended family has spent $2 million in Florida politics and that she helped get that state’s voucher program off the ground.

3. Special education advocates are playing an unusually large role in DeVos’s confirmation fight.

4. Should it matter that DeVos’s school-choice advocacy group never paid a $5.3 million fine levied against it in Ohio? Some of Cleveland’s editorial writers think so.

Thursday, Jan. 26

1. DeVos is expected to be confirmed. But some Senators have received tens of thousands of emails, letters, and phone calls opposing her nomination.

2. Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she’s supporting Ben Carson’s nomination to lead the federal housing department in order to be able to “turn up the heat” on DeVos.

3. After stumbling over a question about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during her confirmation hearing, DeVos tried to reassure a lawmaker this week that she understood the law and was committed to enforcing it.

4. DeVos’s empire includes investments in Whole Foods, energy bars made of crickets, and lumber manufacturers. There’s also a Gary Busey connection.

5. From the National Review: The U.S. education system is too unwieldy to respond to anything but one big, bold idea like school choice, DeVos’s focus.

Wednesday, Jan. 25

1. A lot of Senators have issued statements about why they will or won’t support DeVos’s confirmation. Here’s a vote tracker so you can keep up.

2. DeVos’s family spokesman says she supports gay marriage. She faced sharp questioning during her confirmation hearing about her family’s support of groups that have promoted “conversion therapy.”

3. A recent report showing that the Obama administration’s school-improvement grants didn’t work might help DeVos advance her own very different agenda.

4. DeVos’s lack of personal experience with public education actually makes her an outlier among Trump’s cabinet picks.

Tuesday, Jan. 24

1. DeVos will have a chance to make around 150 political appointments to the education department, Ed Week reports. Many might not have worked in education.

2. Sen. Lamar Alexander defended school vouchers as not being “subversive or new” in a speech (and Medium post) urging his colleagues to confirm DeVos.

3. A Carnegie Mellon professor wonders whether DeVos’s backing of Neurocore, which hasn’t published evidence about the efficacy of its treatments for ADHD and other conditions, spells trouble for education research.

Monday, Jan. 23

1. DeVos isn’t getting the second confirmation hearing that Democrats wanted. Her vote was delayed, though, to give senators time to parse a very lengthy ethics agreement. Look for a vote on Jan. 31.

2. She isn’t selling her interest in Neurocore, a company that claims to help people deal with issues like attention deficit disorder with “biofeedback technology.”

3. DeVos’s remarks on grizzly bears and guns in schools led to snickers, protest signs, and plenty of outrage among gun-control advocates. But officials in Wyoming don’t think the idea is ridiculous at all.

Catching up: Chalkbeat’s DeVos coverage up to now

• Where it all started: What you should know about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary pick — and what her choice might tell us about his plans.

• The first thing DeVos did after being nominated: clarify that she really doesn’t like the Common Core standards.

• DeVos’ appointment would end decades of a bipartisan education policy consensus. Here’s what the moment feels like from inside the reform movement.

• We had a lot of questions before DeVos’s confirmation hearing. She didn’t answer all of them — but she did seek to appear mainstream, her bear fears notwithstanding.

• Many Detroit school supporters blame DeVos for policies that have led to the dire state of their schools. They’re onto something — but the truth is a little more complicated.

• Remember: The biggest upcoming decisions about schools won’t come from the Trump administration, and they won’t be made by DeVos. They’ll happen in state legislatures.

• Learn about Indiana’s voucher program, which mirrors what DeVos has pushed for (and increasingly serves middle-class families). She’s influenced Tennessee’s program, too.

• DeVos got invited to Colorado, so lawmakers there could show her another vision of school choice.

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.