The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education on Tuesday in historic fashion, requiring Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tiebreaking vote.
The Senate split 50-50, with every Democratic member and Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting to oppose DeVos. Pence’s vote was the first time in US history that a vice president has had to cast a tiebreaker for a Cabinet nominee.
The vote ended an uncharacteristically contentious confirmation process for a secretary of education. Typically, the position is confirmed without major opposition.
So what exactly does the secretary of education do?
Education in the US is largely under state and local control and the federal government’s role is deeply limited in scope.
As the head of the US Department of Education (ED), the secretary advises and executes legislation over education policy at both the K-12 and post-secondary level.
“The position of secretary of education is, more than anything, an opportunity to be a bully pulpit to express the views of the president,” Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, told Business Insider. “The role is highly constrained”
Created in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, the ED is the smallest cabinet-level department. Its main functions include administering federal assistance to schools and enforcing federal education laws. The secretary of education is fifteenth in line for succession to the presidency.
Before its inception as independent agency, the ED existed under the scope of what is now known as the Department of Health and Human Services (formerly the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare).
A changing political and social environment after the Second World War led to the creation of the ED, as interest grew to invest in the American educational system. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, for example, threw the US on its heels, and started a race to close the perceived gap in technological capabilities between the USSR and US.
Today, the department collects data and does research on student outcomes and success, providing national figures which allow comparison between states.
While school districts get most of their funding from local taxes, federal agencies including the ED contribute about 8% to district budgets. The ED’s Title I program, for example, provides federal funding to schools with large numbers of low-income students.
The ED, through its sub-agency the Office for Civil Rights, also ensures that discrimination does not occur in schools based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.
For example, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Department of Education on behalf of Gavin Grimm. Grimm, a transgender student, claims he was discriminated against by his school district who will not allow him to use the bathroom that corresponds with his gender identity.
At the collegiate level, too, the ED handles issues of discrimination. Last year, a alliance of Asian American groups filed a federal complaint with the ED against Harvard University. The groups claim that Harvard and other Ivy League schools use racial quotas that discriminate against Asians in the admissions process.
The Office for Civil Rights is also responsible for investigating Title IX — the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination — violations. The ED currently has more than 200 open investigations into sexual assaults on college campuses.
Lastly, one of the largest, and certainly the most costly, areas of responsibility for the ED is the administering of federal student aid. The Pell Grant program — student aid that does not need to be repaid — was the largest area of spending for the department for 2016 with about $22.5 billion spent.
In her home state of Michigan, DeVos has championed charter school and school voucher initiatives, but has not waded into any issues of higher education. She is the first choice for secretary of education without any substantial higher education experience.
While it is possible to predict some of the primary and secondary schooling issues that DeVos will support in her role, it is less apparent the direction she will take in higher education.
During a confirmation hearing where DeVos was grilled on several issues, she gave vague answers or said she was currently unable to provide a response.