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Tennessee Democrats want opponents of DeVos nomination to call Alexander, Corker this weekend

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
YouTube / American Federation for Children

Tennessee Democrats want to flood the state’s U.S. senators with 10,000 phone calls over the weekend against secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups supporting DeVos condemned the telephone campaign, as debate over her nomination heats up heading into Monday’s Senate confirmation vote.

Noting that the Michigan Republican’s confirmation could be upended by just one committed ‘nay’ vote, state Reps. G.A. Hardaway and Joe Towns of Memphis and Mike Stewart of Nashville asked Tennesseans on Friday to contact U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

“Right now it looks like if just Sen. Alexander or Sen. Corker will speak up against Ms. DeVos, she will not be confirmed in the vote on Monday,” Stewart said during a press conference in Nashville.

“There were a lot of us who grew up during the time when Lamar Alexander was governor, and we remember his work on public education,” he said. “A lot of us are still hopeful he will change his mind, put aside his partisan politics and speak up against Ms. DeVos, who is entirely unqualified and frankly has been an enemy of public schools, and an enemy of accountability during her entire involvement with the schools.”

Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and himself served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, has been steadfast in his support of DeVos, a billionaire who has given millions of dollars to advocate for school choice policies such as tuition vouchers. After the Senate voted to fast-track her nomination on Friday, Alexander said he did not understand criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

Corker released a statement on Thursday signaling that he plans to vote to confirm DeVos. He said he admires DeVos’s work directed at empowering parents through school choice.

But Tennessee Democrats have a different take that is consistent with opinions voiced earlier this week during rallies against DeVos in Memphis and Nashville.

“I think what we’ve seen in Michigan, where DeVos is most active, is not just promoting charter schools … but supporting any scheme to take money away from public schools,” Stewart said, citing her stance against a policy to limit the growth of low-performing charter schools in her home state.

Backers of DeVos responded swiftly to the anti-DeVos campaign. Tennessee Federation for Children, an affiliate of the national advocacy group founded by DeVos, released a statement questioning the lawmakers’ motives.

“(Their) extremist rhetoric is simply a reflection that too many others in their party are out of ideas and out of step with their own constituency,” said spokesman Tommy Schultz. “We look forward to having a rational conversation with legislative leaders who are not willing to sacrifice children in order to please union special interests.”

The group linked to a national poll conducted on behalf of the American Federation for Children that showed widespread support of school choice policies, including vouchers.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire Republican Koch brothers in Kansas, issued a statement Friday thanking Alexander and Corker for their support of DeVos.

“Betsy DeVos has been a champion of more choice for students and parents, and her policies are badly needed at the Department of Education,” said Andy Ogles, the chapter’s state director. “Americans for Prosperity supports improving educational outcomes and expanding opportunity for all students — and that means we must do better than the status quo of one-size-fits-all education.”

Hardaway said his concerns about DeVos’s experience are not political, and that he believes Republicans can find a candidate with more public school experience.

“We can’t tell (President Trump) who to nominate,” he said. “All we want to see is a better candidate. … She’s not the only Republican in this country who can do something for education.”

As of Friday, the vote count showed a 50-50 tie following the announcement from two GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, that they will vote no on DeVos. In the case of a tie, Vice President Mike Pence would cast the deciding vote.

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