Both of Maine’s U.S. senators were on the losing side of an effort to prevent billionaire school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos from becoming secretary of education in President Trump’s Cabinet.
Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King joined all Senate Democrats plus Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont in voting against DeVos, creating a 50-50 tie in the confirmation vote early Tuesday afternoon. Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote, the first time in history a vice president has had to do so to resolve a Cabinet confirmation.
Both Maine senators had previously expressed concerns with DeVos’ lack of commitment to and understanding of public schools. “To say she’s a proponent of school choice is an understatement,” King told the Press Herald when he announced his opposition Jan. 24. “Her whole career has been school choice to the exclusion of the basic public education system, and I am just such a firm believer in public education that I can’t go that far.” DeVos, he has said, is hostile to the department’s fundamental mission of helping public schools.
“I continue to harbor those concerns,” King said in a statement released after the final vote, “and in light of her confirmation, now consider it my responsibility to fight to ensure that, under her leadership, Maine public schools will be provided adequate and appropriate funding and that Maine students will be guaranteed an equal opportunity to a quality education.”
Collins told her Senate colleagues Feb. 1 that she was “concerned that Mrs. DeVos’ lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to fully understand, identify, and assist with those challenges, particularly for our rural schools in states like Maine.”
Collins and Murkowski could have blocked DeVos’ nomination when it was before a reviewing committee they both serve on, but they both voted to approve her in a 12-11 party line vote, infuriating some of the nominee’s opponents in Maine. A group affiliated with the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive activist group, started holding “Susan Sunday” rallies to protest her committee vote for DeVos, her championing of Trump’s nominee to head the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions, and other issues.
Collins has explained she believes the full Senate should get its say on Cabinet and judicial nominations, noting she also voted for committee approval for two Obama nominees, even though she opposed them in the full Senate vote.
While DeVos is a champion of school vouchers and deregulating charter schools, neither is likely to gain traction in Maine during the Trump administration, in part because education is still largely controlled at the state and local level, and conservative reformers are likely to weaken rather than strengthen the federal Education Department. “I think they are likely to downsize it, which would give states a lot more flexibility,” Catherine Fallona, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, told the Press Herald in December.
Education experts here in Maine have said they expect the most likely effect on the state will be the likelihood of there being new federal incentives to increase the number of taxpayer-financed, privately operated charter schools in Maine, currently capped at 10. Otherwise, they don’t expect a dramatic change because lawmakers already have opened up school choice options in Maine over the past six years, and school vouchers do not have much support in this largely rural state, where public schools are often the only ones available and communities are usually invested in their well-being.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: