Sen. Alexander pushing support for DeVos ahead of Education Secretary confirmation vote

President Donald Trump appears with his Education Secretary pick, Betsy DeVos.
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Fewer than 24 hours remain before U.S. senators vote on President Trump's pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.

The pick may come down to one vote.

Two Republican senators - Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - have split from party lines and said they'll reject DeVos' nomination.

Given that, Tuesday's vote is expected to be split 50-50, barring an unforeseen Republican vote-switch, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote. He has said he'll approve DeVos' nomination.

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DeVos has been a particularly controversial cabinet pick.

Critics say she is a charter school activist and wealthy Republican donor with no experience in public education. They oppose her support for school vouchers, saying those take money away from public schools.

East Tennessee's own Sen. Lamar Alexander is one of DeVos's biggest supporters. He says her support for school vouchers allow children from low-income families to choose a better school.

"The idea that a low-income child should have the same opportunity or more of the same opportunities that a wealthy family has would seem to me to be a very all-American idea," he said on the Senate floor on Friday.

Locally, Knox County Education Assocation president Lauren Hopson says DeVos' lack of public school experience or involvement is concerning.

Additionally, "during the hearings, it was quite evident she didn't know anything about standard testing policies, about federal law that protects our special ed students, about gun laws in schools," Hopson said, "things that someone who's going to be in charge of our education department really ought to know."

Knox County Board of Education Chair Patti Bounds agrees.

"My biggest concern: I know she is a supporter of charter schools, but more than that is her being unqualified to hold this position with her lack of experience in education," Bounds said Monday.

On Monday, US senators took to the podium to speak either against or in favor of DeVos.

"When a student uses a voucher to attend a private school, it takes away money from local private schools," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. "The Secretary of Education should be focused on improving our public schools, not taking money away from them."

"The nominee for Secretary of Education doesn't know some of the most basic facts about education policy," said Democratic New York Senator and minority leader Chuck Schumer. "If one doesn't measure up, the Senate has a responsibility to reject the nomination. I realize it rarely occurs, but this should be an exception because she is so uniquely unqualified, whether it comes to competence, whether it comes to philosophy against the public schools or whether it comes to conflicts of interest, which still exist in far too many instances with Ms. DeVos' holdings."

On Friday, Alexander said DeVos would give more control back to local school boards.

"There'll be no mandates for Common Core, no mandates for teacher evaluation, no mandate for vouchers, no mandates for anything else from a United States Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos," he said. "There are 22 governors who have written letters to me, as chairman of the Senate Education committee, supporting Betsy DeVos."

The Volunteer State's other senator, Bob Corker, is also a DeVos supporter.

"During the many years I have known Betsy DeVos, I have seen firsthand the heart she has for students and the ideas she has for long overdue reforms," Corker wrote in a statement Friday. “For decades, Betsy has passionately and effectively advocated for all children – regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status – to have access to a quality education."

Asked how many comments Sen. Corker's office has received regarding DeVos, a Corker spokesperson said, "our office hears from thousands of Tennesseans each week on a wide range of issues. 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."

Senators are also hearing from constituents online.

Hopson helped launch a social media campaign, in which educators and other DeVos critics were encouraged to wear black on Monday and tweet a selfie of themselves, with the hashtag #DumpDeVos and #BlackOutDeVos.

"If this vote goes the way we suspect it will, it's kind of a mourning period for public education because we're afraid of what could happen to it," Hopson said. "Education is not a partisan issue. There are Democrats and Republicans, both, who oppose Betsy DeVos' appointment because she just isn't, frankly, qualified."

"It's very concerning that this nomination may go forward," Bounds said, adding if the Senate rejects DeVos' nomination, it would give "President Trump another opportunity to look for a more qualified candidate that has more experience with the educating of our children."