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Pence Swears In Betsy DeVos,Trump's Controversial Education Pick

  • Michael Bowman

Vice President Mike Pence swears in Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, Feb. 7, 2017. With them is DeVos' husband, Dick DeVos.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence swore in Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education on Tuesday after casting the tie-breaking Senate vote to confirm President Donald Trump's controversial nominee.

It was the first time in American history that a vice president had been needed to get a Cabinet pick approved.

DeVos pledged at her swearing-in to "support and defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." In the words of her official vow, she also pledged to "well and faithfully" discharge the duties of her office.

The ceremony took place quickly and without fanfare, except for the whirring and clicking of cameras and other media equipment. After the short ceremony was over, a small audience of family and friends burst into polite applause.

Earlier in the day, two Republicans voted with a united Democratic caucus in opposition to DeVos, a champion of allowing families to use public school funds to send their children to private schools. The result was a 50-50 split before Pence cast the deciding vote, as the Constitution mandates when the chamber is evenly divided.

"She [DeVos] will be an excellent education secretary," said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who served as President George H.W. Bush's education secretary in the early 1990s. He argued that the school choice initiative DeVos supports would bring competition to public education and put lower-income students on a more equal footing with those from well-to-do families.

"The idea that a low-income child should have the same opportunity [to go to a private school] that a wealthy family has would seem to me to be a very all-American idea," the senator said.

Vice President Mike Pence presides over the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 7, 2017, during the Senate's vote on Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos.
Vice President Mike Pence presides over the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 7, 2017, during the Senate's vote on Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos.

"She [DeVos] is committed to improving our education system so that every child, every child has a brighter future," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Democrats held the Senate floor for 24 consecutive hours ahead of the vote, to argue against the education nominee and plead for at least one more Republican to join them in opposing her.

"Public education, from the very beginning of this country, has been at the root of that American idea that you can succeed despite any barriers of circumstance or birth," said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who noted that DeVos had described public schools as a "dead end" for many students. "When you say that public schools are a dead end and then, as Ms. DeVos has, spend your entire career trying to empty out public schools and put kids into private schools, it hurts."

Murphy added that he attended public schools in his youth. "Public education wasn't a dead end for me — I get to be a United States senator."

Homeland Security officers monitor New York’s Foley Square, where hundreds of students protested against Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s newly confirmed pick for secretary of education, along with recent executive actions, Feb. 7, 2017. (R. Taylor/VOA)
Homeland Security officers monitor New York’s Foley Square, where hundreds of students protested against Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s newly confirmed pick for secretary of education, along with recent executive actions, Feb. 7, 2017. (R. Taylor/VOA)

Students stage walkout

New York City high school students staged a midday walkout Tuesday in downtown Manhattan to protest the new secretary and Trump's executive actions, chanting "Dump DeVos."

"As somebody who is inexperienced with education, I think Betsy DeVos poses a special threat for vulnerable students," said Andre Mozeak, one of the protest organizers representing the New York Immigration Coalition. "I don't think the outlook is any better for immigrants and new American students, for students who come here as refugees, especially since she seems to follow the president's policies so tightly."

Tim Cotto, a high school junior from the Bronx, said student debt is a top concern as he begins to think about the cost of private versus public education. "You're finishing your life in school, and then you start your life, but you really start your life in debt," he said.

New York City high school students staged a midday walkout Tuesday afternoon, chanting “Dump DeVos," a reference to newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Feb. 7, 2017. (R. Taylor/VOA)
New York City high school students staged a midday walkout Tuesday afternoon, chanting “Dump DeVos," a reference to newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Feb. 7, 2017. (R. Taylor/VOA)

Cotto comes from a middle-class family but said it's important to understand that not everyone in his neighborhood has the same educational opportunities. "There's outside influences, there's a whole plethora of things that can hold you back," he said.

But student Paul Melendez, who complained that there aren't enough books in public schools, maintains an open mind about DeVos' leadership.

"Maybe something will change," Melendez said. "Maybe they want the best for the next generation."

Then-President-elect Donald Trump, left, and Betsy DeVos, right, pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster's clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J.
Then-President-elect Donald Trump, left, and Betsy DeVos, right, pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster's clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J.

Uncharted territory

A wealthy businesswoman, DeVos has never been a teacher or a school administrator. During her Senate confirmation hearing, she said that guns might be needed at some remote schools to ward off grizzly bears, prompting expressions of disbelief and scorn from Democrats.

DeVos joins just four other Trump Cabinet nominees confirmed to their posts.

WATCH: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on DeVos confirmation

"More than two weeks into his term, President Trump has the fewest Cabinet secretaries confirmed at this point than any other president since George Washington," McConnell complained. "The president deserves to have his Cabinet in place."

Democrats are making no apologies for attempts to slow or derail Trump nominees.

"These are very exceptional times and they call for exceptional tactics, and probably [there will be] a few more exceptional moments on the floor of the Senate," said Murphy.

VOA's Ramon Taylor contributed to this report from New York.

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