Murkowski votes to advance DeVos, angering Alaska school advocates

President Donald Trump’s nominee for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos (Screenshot of U.S. Senate video)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski had an opportunity Tuesday morning to block President Trump’s pick for Education secretary. Thousands of Alaskans have raised objections to Betsy DeVos, but Murkowski voted in the Education Committee to send the nomination to the full Senate for a vote, and Alaska education activists are angry.

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DeVos is proponent of school vouchers, with no direct experience in public schools as a student, educator or parent. Sen. Murkowski said she’s aware that many of her constituents don’t believe DeVos is right for the position.

“I have to acknowledge the thousands, the thousands of Alaskans who have shared their concerns with me about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of Education,” Murkowski said, before the committee vote. “They have come to my office here in Washington, in Alaska, on the phones, in petitions.”

Murkowski says she generally believes a president should be able to assemble his cabinet, but she said she has doubts about DeVos.

“I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of Education who has been so involved in one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she may be unaware of who is broken in our public schools or how to fix it,” Murkowski said.

The committee voted 12-11, along party lines, to advance DeVos’s nomination to the full Senate, and Murkowski was one of the 12. The senator warned, though, that she might not vote for confirmation.

“Do know that she has not yet earned my full support, and when each of us have the opportunity to vote aye or nay on the floor, I would not advise that she yet count on my vote,” she said.

That wasn’t enough for Anchorage resident Deena Mitchell.

“I cannot express the level of shock and just sadness that Sen. Murkowski did not stand up for our Alaskan children,” said Mitchell, member of Great Alaska Schools, a group that has been rallying Alaska opposition to DeVos. They say the nominee doesn’t appear committed to the concept that all children deserve a great chance at education.

Great Alaska Schools, with 24-hours notice, organized a lunchtime demonstration at Murkowski’s Anchorage office on Monday. Mitchell said about 250 people showed up, and she said Murkowski’s staffers told her their phones are inundated.

“They said every chance they get, every 15 minutes, they are emptying that voicemail and it fills right back up,” Mitchell said. “So Alaskans are persistent, they keep trying to call until they can get it through to that voicemail.”

(Murkowski, in a Facebook post last week, said her offices have been flooded with  “phone calls from the Lower 48.” She suggested Alaskans contact her through her website if they have trouble getting through on the phone.)

Some Alaskans are pointing to the DeVos family’s contributions to Murkwoski’s political campaign – more than $40,000.  Mitchell says she doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories – and the contributions were in 2015, long before anyone knew Trump would be elected president or that DeVos would be his nominee. But Mitchell says the contributions may have had a subtle influence.

“I think it’s difficult when somebody has been supportive of you, and been friendly toward you. I’m sure it’s difficult to then vote against somebody like that. I think it’s just human nature,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell says she hopes to keep the pressure on Murkowski until the Senate vote.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Energy Committee, which Murkowski chairs, voted to send Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke to the full Senate for a vote, as well as the nominee to head the Energy Department, Rick Perry.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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