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Heitkamp to oppose Betsy DeVos as education secretary, citing outcry from North Dakotans

Betsy DeVos testifies Jan. 17 before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Chances are the U.S. Senate will approve Betsy DeVos as the next education secretary, but U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she will oppose President Donald Trump's pick, citing nearly 1,400 messages from North Dakotans saying they don't want the nominee to have the job.

"I think a lot of North Dakotans usually wait and give somebody a chance, but her performance in the hearings was probably the worst performance of any (of the nominees)," Heitkamp told the Herald on Monday. "I think it shows, given the attention given to this nominee, how concerned people in North Dakota are and always have been about public school education and making that work for our state."

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has received sharp criticism from Democrats and education leaders, needs 50 Senate votes to be confirmed. With a Republican majority of 52, Democrats would need to recruit at least three GOP senators to block DeVos' appointment.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he will support DeVos. Though he doesn't have a specific count, he is under the impression all of the Republican senators support her.

The Senate Education Committee is expected to vote on her nomination Tuesday before the recommendation heads to the Senate. Media reports indicate it's unlikely an attempt to block DeVos' appointment would be successful.

When asked if he believes she will get the nomination, Hoeven said, "as far as I know. I haven't heard otherwise."

1,400 responses

Heitkamp set up a portal to gauge opinion from her constituents on Trump nominations. She said 95 percent of the almost 1,400 responses she received from North Dakotans said they don't want DeVos to head the Department of Education.

Three percent of the Heitkamp's respondents supported the nomination, and 2 percent said they were neutral, according to a news release from the senator's office.

Heitkamp said in a statement it was clear from watching the hearings that DeVos "doesn't understand the importance of public schools—highlighting her preference for private schools and her work to accomplish that goal by taking public funds away from public schools." Heitkamp also said DeVos "showed her severe lack of knowledge about rural public schools."

Hoeven disagreed with Heitkamp, telling the Herald in a phone interview that when he spoke to DeVos she said she supported public education, as well as state and local control.

"I think that is the key, it should be up to North Dakota and the local school districts to determine how to educate our kids, not the federal government," he said.

Almost half of the responses Heitkamp received on the 13 Cabinet positions mentioned concerns about DeVos, according to Heitkamp's office. She said the DeVos responses were "by far" the most she received on a nominee.

"That's being driven by how much people in North Dakota care about public school education," she said.

When asked via email if he heard concerns from constituents, Hoeven said, "The concern we've heard expressed is that she supports school choice, which is why we asked her if she supports public education and state and local control. She does. That means it will be up to the state of North Dakota and local school districts to decide how to address school choice."

Move to block DeVos

Democrats have criticized DeVos for not pledging in the hearings to carry out rules on sexual assault, for-profit colleges and fair access for students with disabilities. Others criticized her for not having experience in applying for federal aid for college—either for herself or her children.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who sits on the education committee, has said all Democrats oppose her. He told the Herald in a statement that he's received thousands of calls from Minnesotans, with "the overwhelming majority" opposing her nomination, stating she "failed to adequately answer even the most basic questions about education policy."

"I frankly can't remember questioning a more ill-prepared nominee for a Cabinet-level position," Franken said.

Heitkamp said she has not tried to recruit other Republicans to vote against DeVos, adding that is a decision each senator has to make.

"This one just did not pass that test for me," Heitkamp said of DeVos. "This was not a nominee I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt."

Reuters Media contributed to this report.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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