The Many Explanations For Murkowski’s Dissent On DeVos Confirmation

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Michael McGrady Director of McGrady Policy Research
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When the media picked up the story of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Maine Senator Susan Collins, also a Republican, stating that they will not support Betsy DeVos to be confirmed as the next education secretary, all hell broke loose.

Well, not really, but, some of the headlines called Murkowski and Collins, through their dissent, sent a nod to the prospective education secretary that she may have a harder time getting her foot in the door.

“She’ll be confirmed — you can take that to the bank,” Texas Senator John Cornyn, the majority whip for Senate Republicans, fervently declared in a Washington Post report on the matter.

There should be no doubt about that, even if a confirmation vote is split in half. In this case, Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution will come into the equation granting Vice President Michael Pence the ability to break the tie and, as we obviously know, would lead to DeVos’ confirmation.

Regardless of the semantics and the inside baseball, it honestly isn’t that surprising that Senator Murkowski, specifically, is “defecting” from her caucus. For one, her home state of Alaska doesn’t have any form of school choice or voucher programs. Second, she has always been wary of the nomination of Betsy DeVos since the action to confirm her was introduced by the Trump Administration. And third, — yes, I am pulling this card — she’s just a really liberal Republican.

Murkowski took to the house floor to deliver her reasoning why she can’t support DeVos. Her address to her colleagues goes as follows…

“I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of Education… who has been so immersed in the discussion of vouchers.” As if school choice is an inherent threat to clout of the ever-so effective federal Department of Education, of whom DeVos will shortly be heading. She also cited her concerns for rural and tribal Alaskans and, in the past, befouled school choice with overt support for public education and teachers’ unions over students.

Breaking from the snarky remarks, as aforementioned, Murkowski’s dissent isn’t that mind-boggling. According to EdChoice, a pro-school choice non-profit organization founded by Milton Friedman, Alaska has absolutely no school choice or voucher programs in place. To spare the arduous history of the fight for school choice options within the state, there just doesn’t seem to be any major support for such programs in the state legislature or the executive branch. As we can see here, that sentiment is carried all the way into the Congressional delegation, in addition.

Murkowski’s fellow Republican Senator, Dan Sullivan, despite her position, voiced his (let’s say) measured support for DeVos and her nomination, siding with the Administration and the other members of the Senate Republicans.

In a press release voicing his support, Senator Sullivan stated that, “She (DeVos) is someone who cares deeply about our kids. She committed to working closely with states and local school districts – which are closest to our students – and return the decision-making process back to where it belongs: with local school administrators, teachers, and parents to ensure that our most vulnerable populations receive access to a high quality education, especially in rural Alaska.”

Moving from this, the controversy surrounding DeVos and her nomination can be carbon dated back to the beginnings of the school choice debate. Yet, even now we find ourselves in a paradigm where public education and its special interests feel threatened by school choice options across the country.

Based on a 2017 poll conducted by the American Federation for Children, an overwhelming 68% of respondents, representing American adults, support school choice in some form. The support has even gone as far as yielding high bipartisan support with over 80% Republican-identified respondents and 55% Democrat-identified respondents support school choice options, as well. Sadly, in the case for Murkowski, she stumped with the teacher’s unions and “forgot the children.” How shocking…

We also cannot forget Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) Native American Education Opportunity Act, which would’ve amended the Education Amendment of 1978 to include measures that would direct the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide reimbursement to states for grants made to education savings accounts for qualified native students. Though this plan died in the final months of the 114th Congress, I mention it because I view that it helps support the argument that school choice works and DeVos will put school choice options as a front running focus of Trump’s Education Department while working with public and private actors in educational instruction.

In an effort to “cut to the chase,” Alaska’s Murkowski is losing out on being a part of a great opportunity for the American citizenry and her constituency, to say the least.

But, it is her political loss that she joins with the left to oppose a fervent advocate for the best possible education for America’s kids. However, like the French say, c’est la vie.