Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of education, is at risk Tuesday of becoming the first cabinet nominee in 28 years to be rejected by the Senate, due in large part to the efforts of people like Tim Royers, a high-school history teacher from Nebraska.
Named his state’s teacher of the year, Mr. Royers started organizing his fellow honorees against Mrs. DeVos when they gathered for a celebration last month in Florida. When Mrs. DeVos, a school-choice activist, seemed to stumble in her confirmation hearing days later, Facebook messages began flying among the teachers about how to use the moment to lobby lawmakers.
Similar efforts by parents, teachers and others around the country helped jam Senate phone lines for days. With two Republican senators now opposed to Mrs. DeVos, her nomination would fail if a third Republican abandons her during the confirmation vote, expected on Tuesday.
Republicans hold 52 Senate seats, and Democrats have 48. If no additional opponents to her nomination emerge, the Senate will be tied, 50-50, leaving Vice President Mike Pencewith the deciding vote and making her the only cabinet nominee in history to win confirmation on a tiebreaking vote by a vice president.
For a Democratic Party that lacks the votes to stop Mr. Trump’s nominees on its own, the DeVos confirmation process has become a small victory, bringing national attention to the president’s views on education that Democrats believe are out of the mainstream.
The confirmation fight also provides an example of the power of social media to drive political events.
“I have heard from thousands—truly thousands—of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) in announcing that she would oppose the nomination. “They’ve contacted me by phone, by e-mail, in person.”
Mrs. DeVos, a 59-year-old billionaire, has spent decades pushing for charter schools, which are publicly funded but mostly privately run, and advocating for school vouchers, which provide public funds for children to attend private schools.
Those opposing Mrs. DeVos question her loyalty to the traditional public school system. Supporters say her 30-plus years of dedication to the school-choice movement and to widening educational options for low-income families makes her a good fit for the job.
Mrs. DeVos’s confirmation hearing has become a focal point in the battle.
One key moment was an exchange in which Mrs. DeVos said that states should decide whether federally funded schools have to meet the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures that students with a disability receive an education fitted to their needs.
When Sen. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.), whose son has cerebral palsy, followed up to ask whether Mrs. DeVos understood that the disabilities act was a federal law that applied nationally, Mrs. DeVos replied, “I may have confused it.”
The comments were a red flag to some educators, who worry the federal government will provide money to charter schools without holding them accountable for providing services mandated under the disability law.
In a second exchange, Mrs. DeVos said states should determine policies on guns in schools. Referencing a mention by Sen. Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.) of a grizzly bear fence surrounding a Wyoming school, Mrs. DeVos said, “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Senate Democrats quickly posted video clips of the two exchanges on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Facebook page, where they have been viewed more than 34 million times.
Mrs. DeVos in the hearing “was not as articulate as she could have been,’’ said Ed Patru, spokesman for the group Friends of Betsy DeVos. “She doesn’t have an inordinate amount of experience fending off a dozen hostile, grandstanding senators whose singular goal was to trip her up and embarrass her.”
Mr. Patru said Mrs. DeVos cares more about the education of kids than about reaching the “self-serving political goals of teachers unions.”
Unions don’t deny they are playing a role but say such attacks are misplaced. “When you believe that the only way that children do well is if the people who are closest to them have no power and no voice, that is wrong,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Outside of Congress, the hearing catalyzed opponents of Mrs. DeVos.
In Maine, Talya Edlund, a fifth-grade teacher, recruited neighbors and others to lobby the Senate, in part because of Mrs. DeVos’s comments on students with disabilities.
“That to me crystallized that this was not someone who knew the law or had a depth of knowledge regarding the issues that serve our most fragile students,” Ms. Edlund said.
Jessica Tilli, a public-school teacher in Philadelphia, helped organize a rally outside the office of Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). “I have never done anything like this before,” said Ms. Tilli, who said she acted out of concerns that Mrs. DeVos isn’t qualified to lead the nation’s education system.
“She’s hostile to the ideal of public education,” Lizzie Scott, a mother of two public-school children in Brooklyn, said of Mrs. DeVos, whom she said she researched after the nomination. “It’s really upsetting to me that senators could think that she’s qualified for this job.”
Ms. Scott organized a letter-writing campaign, held a rally in New York, and started a Facebook page to speak out against Ms. DeVos.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which advocates for charter schools, commended Mrs. DeVos’s overall performance in the hearing. “She articulated a belief that every child deserves a quality education in a quality school, and that parents need to have a choice in making that goal a reality,” he said.
Meanwhile, some of the 2016 teachers of the year who had begun organizing in Florida decided to step up their efforts after the hearing. “It was like a live war room,” Mr. Royers said of their conversation on Facebook.
Mr. Royers contacted friends on Capitol Hill, who urged the teachers to move beyond posting comments to Facebook and Twitter. The message: hit the phones.
Their targets included two Republicans from rural states: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Ms. Murkowski of Alaska. Both said last week that they would vote against the nomination. Public schools in rural states receive an outsize share of federal funding designated for those serving low-income families and might be most sensitive to the potential for funds being diverted to charter or private schools.