(UPDATED, 6:09 p.m., with statement from Risch.)
Hours before President Trump’s most controversial Cabinet pick survived a historic Senate vote, Gov. Butch Otter had little to say Tuesday morning about her.
“I don’t know that much about (Betsy) DeVos,” Otter told reporters at a breakfast question-and-answer session. “All I know is what I’ve either heard or read, and that’s fairly limited.”
DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary, was confirmed after an unprecedented 50-50 Senate deadlock. Vice President Mike Pence cast the decisive vote for the Michigan billionaire and fervent school choice advocate — marking the first time a vice president has cast the decisive vote for a Cabinet nominee.
Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch voted to confirm DeVos.
“I supported Betsy DeVos because she has expressed her absolute commitment to restoring states’ power over their education systems and has been a strong advocate for school choice,” Risch said late Tuesday afternoon.
The Senate’s 48 Democrats voted against DeVos, with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joining Democrats in opposition.
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The education secretary could have considerable sway over K-12 policies in the states. That includes the rollout of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law designed to give states more autonomy over K-12 policy. That also includes two of DeVos’ pet issues: school vouchers and charter schools.
On Tuesday, Otter said he sides with DeVos on school choice. But here — as on many other facets of the Trump transition — the rollout is uncertain.
Trump has discussed creating a $20 billion block grant program to promote vouchers and charter schools. But the Idaho Constitution expressly forbids vouchers that would support religious schools. Otter has signaled his opposition to tweaking this constitutional ban, as has House Speaker Scott Bedke.
On Tuesday, Otter predicted a difficult constitutional battle over a voucher system. But he also said the state would have to “measure the value” of any education block grant programs offered by Trump and DeVos.
For years, Otter has touted the bipartisan support for education overhaul at the state level. He has hailed the work of his 2013 education task force, which has given Idaho its first-ever five-year plan for K-12, a blueprint with consensus support from education, business and political leaders.
DeVos, meanwhile, takes over the helm of the U.S. Department of Education under decidedly different political circumstances.
Critics, including teachers’ unions, questioned her commitment to public education. They had lobbied furiously, in hopes of convincing a third Republican senator to break ranks.
But Otter seemed to suggest DeVos could overcome the bruising nomination process. The key, he said, rests in the kind of rules and regulations DeVos’ Education Department hands down to the states. “It’s not unusual for some of the controversial appointments and nominations to have a very vigorous debate for confirmation in the Senate.”
That debate appears likely to continue, however. After Tuesday’s vote, the president of the Idaho Education Association called on DeVos to place the interests of students ahead of the interests of “billionaire social circles and corporate interests.”
“The bottom line is that Idaho’s students, parents, teachers and communities deserve an education secretary who is both qualified and supportive of public schools,” said Penni Cyr of the IEA. “Betsy DeVos is neither, which is why her confirmation today is wrong on so many levels. As evidenced by the massive outcry in opposition to her nomination, Idahoans and Americans have legitimate reasons to be concerned about her intentions and efficacy in the position.”
Discrimination vs. ‘preference’
Otter spoke Tuesday morning at an annual question-and-answer session sponsored by the Idaho Press Club. The predominant theme from this year’s event was the turbulent transition at the White House.
In a long and pointed exchange, Otter walked back his remarks on Trump’s temporary ban on refugee resettlements from seven countries. In an interview with Idaho Public Television last week, Otter conceded the plan discriminates against Muslim refugees — but said the plan was necessary in the name of safety.
On Tuesday, Otter said he shouldn’t have answered when asked if the travel ban was discriminatory. “We’re talking about preference here … I’m OK with religious preference.”
(Click here to read our May 2016 series on refugee students in Boise and Twin Falls.)