Teachers unions across the nation were breathing fire the moment Betsy DeVos was appointed Secretary of Education on Feb. 6.
Now that the dust has begun to settle, local educators and school administrators remain leery of what the confirmation may mean for the future of public schools.
The nomination of DeVos by President Donald Trump was a contentious one that divided the U.S. Senate in a historic manner.
In the past, education secretary nominees have usually been easily confirmed by a voice vote. This time, though, the Senate was split down the middle, 50-50, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of DeVos.
“It’s a sad day for public education in America,” Ohio Education Association president Becky Higgins said after the vote. “But the tens of thousands of Ohio educators and concerned citizens who actively opposed this distinctly unqualified appointee are not going away. We will continue to speak out and will work with like-minded lawmakers to thwart any effort by the federal government to undermine support for Ohio’s public schools.”
Higgins’ remarks were echoed across the country by state teachers’ unions. Educators nationwide campaigned against the confirmation of DeVos, leading to unprecedented opposition calls to legislators.
“The irony is inescapable: While educators are required to prove they are qualified in order to work in the classroom, the U.S. Senate has confirmed a dangerous ideologue with absolutely no experience or qualifications to lead the U.S. Department of Education,” the powerful New York State United Teachers said in a released statement. “Betsy DeVos’ gave puzzling answers to basic questions about federal education policy. Her opposition to accountability for charter schools; unresolved conflicts of interest; and decades-long record of using her family’s fortune to undermine public education led hundreds of groups – and millions of Americans here in New York and across the country – to vigorously oppose her confirmation in phone calls, letters, e-mails and faxes. We are proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with them in defense of our public schools.”
Even unions in traditionally right-leaning states were cautious about DeVos.
“She can have serious consequences in West Virginia because we are such a rural state and we rely a lot on the federal funding,” West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee said. “Anybody who wants to take that funding away and use it for vouchers, private schools, charter schools, (or) home schools could be a detriment to West Virginia.”
We reached out to local school union heads to hear their outlook. None wanted to go on the record.
So we started calling education officials up and down the Rt. 58 corridor — and learned worries are abundant.
“Personally, I’m very saddened that she was appointed,” Lorain County JVS school board president Deborah Melda said. “My hope is that she will work with public schools and help us move forward. I think it’s too early to know if some compromise can be had between her views and those of public schools. Hopefully she’ll visit enough public schools, hear what we’re saying, and help us meet our needs.”
Oberlin Schools superintendent David Hall is willing to take more of a wait-and-see approach before judging DeVos.
“I think all we have to go on is pretty much her track record, but let’s give her an opportunity and see what happens,” Hall said. “This is her first appointment, so let’s hold out here the next couple months to find out what’s going to happen.”
Much of the concern by public school teachers and administrators about DeVos stems from the billionaire’s ties with charter schools and her serving as a chair of the pro-school-choice group American Federation for Children.
DeVos had also been a force behind the growth in numbers of charters schools in Michigan and has advocated for the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition.
“Michigan, prior to DeVos’ impact on shifting public dollars to charter schools, ranked around 25th in the country as far as state testing,” said Wellington High School teacher Dave Conklin when we raised the subject in casual conversation (he agreed to go on the record).
“Now, it’s down in the 40s. If DeVos continues to have that kind of impact, I see no other outcome for public schools but to struggle without state help. What kind of state government is that? It basically takes public dollars from public schools and shifts them to charters for free market, ideological purposes. The free market works for most things, but education is supposed to guarantee everyone a quality education.”
Lorain County JVS superintendent Glenn Faircloth feels school choice hurts more than just students.
“It hurts more than just those kids in that school district. You hurt teachers, the economy, the workforce, and a lot of other things,” he said. “It’s a domino effect. Great schools in neighborhoods have a tendency to raise property value and attract new families to the area. Many attractive aspects come into a place to surround a great school. It raises the quality of living for everyone. Schools are the epicenter of a community. We’re here because of taxpayer dollars, so it’s a community building so to speak. Taking away from that hurts everybody.”
During confirmation hearings, DeVos raised some eyebrows with some of her comments, perhaps the most sensational that some schools may want to have guns on the premises to protect against grizzly bears.
But her opponents feel her answers to down-to-earth questions on achievement and student growth showed a lack of any qualification to be secretary of education.
“If you followed the hearings at all, she’s not very knowledgeable on things like special education, value-added metrics, and so forth, which is really the world that we live in day-to-day,” Educational Service Center of Lorain County superintendent Greg Ring said. “You’d like to have had somebody that had a pretty rich background on those educational issues, the big issues facing schools today. It seemed to be lacking with Mrs. DeVos.”
Amherst board of education president Ron Yacobozzi expressed similar concerns.
“As a long-time advocate of public education, I would expect the secretary of education to have in-depth knowledge of public schools, which allegedly she does not,” Yoacobozzi said. “We strive every day to ensure that Amherst students and staff members have access to appropriate learning environments, tools, and community support.
“She’s not somebody that I would have picked.”
Hall said her lack of experience with public schools is a concern, “but now she’s going to have to be dealing more with public schools, while dealing with the private sector at the same time,” he said.
“She’s going to have to be balanced. I understand she is going to a lot of public school districts. Hopefully, since we have some great things going on in our public-school systems, her views will start changing and we’ll start seeing a different mindset in the next few years.”
While there is some question as to how much of an effect DeVos will have on public education both nationally and locally, there is concern that she could influence public schools’ federal funding.
“The biggest concern is, how will this impact the federal resources that do come to us? Will those resources that we’ve counted on in the past be diverted in other ways?” Ring said. “We already know that President Trump has articulated that he wants to send $20 billion to the choice effort, which tells me it’s not coming to the traditional K-12 world. What could $20 billion do for America’s traditional public schools?
“I guess my biggest concern is where will the funding priorities be moving forward? That’s a place Mrs. DeVos and the president could have a lot of impact, good or bad, with our nation’s schools.”
Wellington Schools superintendent Ed Weber agrees.
“Investments in public education are something I’m always going to be for. Reductions in public education spending are something I’m not going to support,” Weber said. “I don’t know Betsy DeVos. I try to take my time, energy, and efforts and apply it to things I can control, which are the things I can do better to serve the kids and families in this district.”
One thing teachers, administrators, and parents can do to help their local public schools is pay attention to what is going on in Washington, educators told us.
“Not to say that we don’t pay attention now, but I think this is a perfect example that we need to pay attention a little more closely, to see what the outcome of this is going to be,” Yacobozzi said. “I don’t know where it’s all going to go. I’m not sure anybody knows where it’s going to go, because we don’t really have a track record on this lady. Will she be someone that is really good at it? I can’t say, just yet.”
Ring thinks it would be wise for not only educators, but parents and community members across the region to follow the legislation that will be pushed forward to Congress.
“One thing I was certainly encouraged about was the shout against Mrs. DeVos’ nomination from our stakeholders,” he said. “There were a lot of people who picked up the phone and called their senators and asked them to really consider not voting for her.”
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter. Jason Hawk and Jonathan Delozier contributed to this story.