About 50 Chicago education activists demonstrated in downtown’s Federal Plaza Tuesday after Republican donor and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos cleared her first hurdle to becoming education secretary.
After a heated debate Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., senators on the Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Committee voted 12-11 along partisan lines to support DeVos' nomination, sending it to the full Senate for action.
Within the hour, parents and community leaders, holding signs and bullhorns, protested at Chicago’s Federal Plaza, where U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have offices.
“Just vote no! Just vote no!” they shouted. The group delivered letters and petitions to both senators, urging them to publicly voice their opposition to DeVos.
A date for the full Senate vote has not been set. A spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority leader, said more information on DeVos' confirmation will be available Wednesday afternoon.
“She’s trying to divert our public funds to the private--that’s not OK,” said public school parent Joy Clendening. “Public dollars belong in public schools, and we need a secretary of education that actually believes in public schools, and in the separation of church and state.”
Clendening said she is concerned pending voucher bills in the Illinois legislature could get a boost from a pro-voucher federal government.
“The pot of money in Illinois for public education is not getting bigger, and with people like Betsy DeVos, we just see that small pie being put into smaller and smaller slices,” said Clendening.
Hugo Trevino attended the Chicago protest in a power wheelchair. A graduate student in education at Loyola who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, Trevino said he was concerned that at hearings earlier this month, DeVos seemed confused about how the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act works.
“Because of laws like the IDEA, I was able to get an education and benefit just like anyone else,” Trevino said.
Duckworth has said publicly she will oppose DeVos. Durbin’s staff said DeVos’s testimony before the Senate committee “raised serious questions about her ability to lead America’s schools.” He is expected to make a public statement about his vote soon.
DeVos backers said her support for school choice, charter schools and vouchers offers children an opportunity for high-quality education they wouldn’t get otherwise.
But it was clear DeVos faces skepticism even from some Republicans. Two prominent Republicans on the Senate-HELP committee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said they are not yet sure whether they will vote for her on the Senate floor.
A new controversy erupted before this morning’s committee vote, as the Washington Post reported that DeVos appears to have used quotes from an Obama administration official without attribution in her written responses to questions from Democrats considering her nomination.
In response to a question on LGBT rights, DeVos wrote to Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's top Democrat, "Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive, and grow."
The quote appears to closely track a statement by Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, in a May press release.
"Upon initial review, many of the responses look copied and pasted from previous statements, or are simple reiterations of the law and not true responses at all," Murray said ahead of the committee vote.
Rob Goad, a White House official tasked with education policy, called the plagiarism allegations "character assassination."
"The secretary-designate has long referenced the need for safe and supportive learning environments, free of discrimination, for all students, so that they can learn, achieve, thrive, grow, and lead successful productive lives. These heartfelt words are not the domain of any one individual," Goad said in a statement. "To level an accusation against her about these words included in responses to nearly 1,400 questions — 139 alone from the ranking member — is simply a desperate attempt to discredit Betsy DeVos, who will serve the Department of Education and our nation's children with distinction if confirmed."
This isn't the first time when Trump's team has had to fight off plagiarism allegations.
After her speech during the Republican National Convention over the summer, Melania Trump was accused of copying parts of a speech from Michelle Obama.
Also, conservative commentator Monica Crowley had been tapped to be director of strategic communications at the National Security Council but withdrew from consideration after accusations of plagiarism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.