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AFT president: Trump's education secretary nominee wants to privatize schools

Speaking today at the National Press Club in Washington, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten warned of an assault on public schools if Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos becomes education secretary. A GOP donor who has fought for school choice, DeVos is Trump's nominee for the post. The AFT lists its membership at 1.6 million.

Here are excerpts of Weingarten's speech: Here is a link to the full speech.

I was in the Senate gallery in December 2015 listening to Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray—two folks who don’t often agree—agree about what was needed: to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act. Sen. Alexander, who marveled at the remarkable consensus around ESSA, said at the time: “We have created an environment that I believe will unleash a flood of excellence in student achievement, state by state and community by community.”

Eighty-five senators, 359 representatives, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the School Superintendents Association, civil rights groups, many parents and parent groups across the country including the PTA, our brothers and sisters in the National Education Association, and the people I represent in the AFT, cheered what President Obama called a Christmas miracle.

That consensus—that fundamental reform of education policy—is why K-12 education, as important as it is, wasn’t a major issue in the presidential campaign; it was the subject of not one debate question.

Well, it’s becoming an issue now. On Wednesday, the Senate education committee will hold its first hearing to consider Betsy DeVos’ nomination.

Instead of nominating an education secretary who sees her mission as strengthening public schools and implementing the blueprint Democrats and Republicans crafted and cheered, Donald Trump dismissed the will of the people, choosing instead the most anti-public education nominee in the history of the department. Betsy DeVos lacks the qualifications and experience to serve as secretary of education. Her drive to privatize education is demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.

If DeVos is confirmed—if she shatters this hard-won consensus, if she reignites the education wars—she will demonstrate that her ultimate goal is to undermine public schools, the schools that 90 percent of American children attend. It should come as no surprise that we are steadfast in opposing her nomination, and equally steadfast in our continuing work to advance reforms that will make a positive difference in the lives and success of children.

The frontier in education has moved from Washington, D.C., to state capitols, districts and school communities. This doesn’t mean that the federal government has no role. We still need it to promote equity by funding schools that serve disadvantaged children and protecting the civil rights of all children, including LGBTQ students, still vitally important 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But ESSA quelled the education wars and enabled our shared attention to turn to what works: collaboration, and capacity building, and powerful learning, and the well-being of all children. Practical concepts that are scalable and sustainable; that Republicans and Democrats can support; and that red states and blue states, and rural, suburban and urban schools, can implement with the right investment and management.

So as Republicans and Democrats, parents and teachers, all came together around ESSA, where was Betsy DeVos? She was working in Michigan to undermine public schools and divide communities. And now, she’s poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America.

If Donald Trump wanted an ideologue, he found one. DeVos’ involvement in education has been to bankroll efforts to destabilize, defund and privatize public schools. She hasn’t taught in a public school. She hasn’t served on a school board. She never attended public school—nor did she send her kids to one. She’s a lobbyist—but she is not an educator.

One wonders why she was nominated. Well, like a lot of Donald Trump’s Cabinet choices, she’s a billionaire with an agenda. As she herself boasted: “My family is the single biggest contributor to the Republican National Committee. … We expect a return on our investment.” By the way, those investments do not exempt her from the ethics disclosures required of all Cabinet nominees. Frankly, her failure to disclose should delay her hearing.

In 2000, DeVos and her husband bankrolled a multimillion-dollar ballot initiative to create private school vouchers in Michigan. Voters rejected it by more than a 2-to-1 margin. No surprise, as the evidence over a quarter century shows that vouchers have failed to improve student achievement significantly or consistently.

After this defeat, she shifted her focus to diverting taxpayer dollars from neighborhood public schools to for-profit charter schools. And let’s give her her due. Over the last 15 years, Michigan has become America’s Wild Wild West of for-profit charter schools. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are for-profit.

Yes, give her her due, but don’t give her responsibility. Here’s why: When the option was to bolster underfunded public schools, she fought instead for a tax cut for the rich. When the option was to support neighborhood public schools, she disparaged public education and fought to divert taxpayer dollars to for-profit charters. When the option was to strengthen charter schools with real accountability, she fought for no accountability. No accountability, even in cases like the Detroit charter schools that closed just days after the deadline to get state funding, leaving students scrambling to find a new school, but the charter operators still profiting.

She’s devoted millions to elect her friends and punish her enemies, and, at every critical moment, she has tried to take the public out of public education.

What is the result of all this? Student performance has declined across Michigan. Nearly half of all its charter schools ranked among the bottom of American schools. Just look at the yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press, which revealed rampant problems in the state’s for-profit charter schools—corruption, cronyism, poor performance and lack of accountability.

That’s Ms. DeVos’ legacy.

Back when I taught Tamika and her classmates at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, they would say, “You can’t just talk the talk; you’ve got to walk the walk.” For a secretary of education, that means doing all you can to strengthen and improve public education. To do that, you have to first experience it—and be willing to walk the walk.

To that end, I extend both a challenge and an invitation to Ms. DeVos. Spend some time in public schools. There is no substitute for seeing firsthand what works in our public schools, or for seeing the indefensible conditions too many students, teachers and school staff endure.

The Trump administration can follow the will of the people, and walk the path laid out by Congress a year ago. Or they can follow the destructive dogmas of the past and reignite the education wars.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.