AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The confirmation of President Trump's nominee for education secretary could hang on a single tiebreaker vote to be cast by Vice President Mike Pence. Democrats oppose Betsy DeVos. Two Republicans do as well. And to tell us why the billionaire heiress, GOP donor an advocate of school choice has generated so much criticism, we turn to Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Hey there, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So these two senators, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Maine's Susan Collins - why have they broken ranks with their party over DeVos?
KAMENETZ: You know, the activists I've talked to who've been trying to foment grassroots opposition to all of Trump's Cabinet picks say that DeVos really struck a nerve. She made a huge impression in her Cabinet hearings and not in a good way with seeming to not really know very much about basic ideas and issues pertaining to federal education law.
And I think that people on both sides of the aisle have really kind of come together. Murkowski specifically spoke to the fact that she's heard of - from thousands of constituents, and Collins raised grave doubts about DeVos' qualifications.
CORNISH: One thing these two lawmakers have in common - they both represent states with large rural areas. And how is the school choice debate viewed in rural communities?
KAMENETZ: That's right. So both Trump and DeVos' rhetoric has centered on failing public schools and talking specifically about urban areas. But in a state like Alaska or a state like Maine, students may travel long distances by bus to get to the nearest local school. And so the notion of commuting to a charter school or even to a private school using vouchers just may not be as attractive.
CORNISH: I understand even advocates of school choice like Eli Broad of the Broad Foundation have opposed DeVos. What's going on there?
KAMENETZ: That's right, and that's because the sort of mainstream agenda around school choice is very focused on accountability, the idea that we would monitor schools closely, make sure that they take the same tests as regular public schools and close them down if they're not performing. And DeVos has really not advocated for any of that.
The schools - the charter schools that she's backed in Michigan - she's wanted them to be entirely exempt from many forms of accountability. And as a result, many of them have not performed on the same level with ordinary public schools.
CORNISH: Anya, before I let you go, one issue I don't hear very much about is, you know, how much of a say does the U.S. secretary of education actually have over issues like school choice?
KAMENETZ: That's a really interesting question, Audie. You know, it's true. Charter school policy is really set very much at the state level and also in individual cities. However, you can't underestimate the power of the bully pulpit for the federal government with competitive grant programs, for example, to try to push one or another vision of school choice. And I think that's what DeVos represents to a lot of people.
CORNISH: That's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thank you.
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