A long-time supporter of tax vouchers for families who send children to private schools became the new U.S. Secretary of Education Tuesday by a razor-thin vote.Vice President Mike Pence, who officially presides over the Senate, broke a tie by voting for DeVos to make the final tally 51-50.
Democrats down the party line voted against DeVos, but two Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- also voted no.
It was the only time in U.S. history that a cabinet member was approved by a one-vote margin in the Senate, according to The Hill, a news service that covers Congress.
DeVos is one of the wealthiest women in the world. She and her husband Dick have an estimated worth of $5.2 billion, according to a report in Forbes magazine. They are long-time donors to Republican Party candidates. Since 1989, the DeVos family has given more than $17 million to political candidates and committees, the Guardian has reported.
DeVos has never worked in public education, but has shown a strong interest in education. She has been a significant donor to Christian schools. She is currently a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education founded by Jeb Bush in 2007.
She and husband Dick manage the DeVos Family Foundation.
DeVos has spent decades advocating for school voucher programs, which would give families a tax-credit voucher if they decide to send students to private school. The tax credit would be roughly equivalent to the amount of taxes they pay to support public schools.
Public school supporters fear vouchers would cut vital funds for public schools, and public schools would be left with the financial burdens of educating all students, including the physically, mentally and emotionally disabled.
Withstanding pressure from women’s groups, Neb. Sen. Deb Fischer voted for DeVos. Fischer, a former school board member and the daughter of a public school teacher, said she “received assurances from her (DeVos) in writing that the Department of Education will not impose new federal mandates related to vouchers on our schools.”
On the other hand, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten said, "In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America."
"Betsy DeVos is an actual danger to students — especially our most vulnerable students,” National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia echoed. “She has made a career trying to destroy neighborhood public schools, the very cornerstone of what's made our nation so strong."
Dick and Betsy DeVos were prime supporters in the establishment of a charter school for high school students who want to go into aviation, the West Michigan Aviation Academy.
According to a report in MLive media, a conglomeration of Michigan newspapers, last year's graduating class at the school contained 15 licensed pilots. The high school's focus on STEM, aeronautical engineering and robotics pull in kids from seven counties, many of whom commute more than an hour to attend.
More than one-third of the Western Michigan Aviation students are classified as economically disadvantaged. Nearly 40 percent are minorities. The graduation rate is 86 percent, MLive said, citing Michigan state records.
DeVos's brother Erik Prince founded the private military contracting firm Blackwater.