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At Women’s March, Some Teachers Target Betsy DeVos’ ‘Grizzly’ Hearing

By Alyson Klein — January 21, 2017 3 min read
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Scores of educators joined hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the “Women’s March” in Washington Saturday to protest President Donald Trump on his first full day in office.

And a handful of the teachers in the crowd wanted to talk about one thing: Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, who had a sometimes-rocky confirmation hearing last week, and has since become something of a social media celebrity.

The most-mocked comment: DeVos’ assertion that a remote school in Wyoming might need guns to protect from “potential grizzlies.”

“We’re all going to have PLC’s on how to kill a grizzly,” joked Lynn Tankersley, a 7th grade teacher at Easthall Middle School in Gainesville, Ga., referring to professional learning communities, which are usually geared towards teacher collaboration and unpacking student learning data.

On a more serious note, Tankersley is worried that DeVos initially appeared not to understand that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act applies to all public schools. “She doesn’t know what IDEA is,” Tankersley said. “That just infuriates me.”

DeVos told Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that enforcement of the law should be up to states and local districts. Later, she said she had misunderstood the question.

Tankersley’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Garcia, who teaches 4th grade at an elementary in Gainesville, Va., said that given all the emphasis on educators as life-long learners, she was shocked that DeVos didn’t appear to study-up for the hearing. “I think it’s deplorable that she didn’t even seem prepared,” Garcia said.

Both mother and daughter worried that DeVos and Trump would try to siphon money from public schools to private ones. DeVos was non-committal when pressed on that question by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, during her hearing.

Concerns About Competency

Libby Craig, a 4th and 5h grade teacher at an elementary school in Greenwich, Connecticut, said she was bothered by what she called DeVos’ seemingly tenuous grasp of basic issues in public education. Craig didn’t necessarily expect to agree with whoever tapped Trump as education secretary, but she had hoped that they would have an understanding of K-12 schools.

“I would have no concerns if we just disagreed,” Craig said, adding that she tells her students that working with people whose opinions are different from your own is part of living in a democracy. But when she watched DeVos’ confirmation she saw a nominee who simply wasn’t prepared to handle basic questions. “I don’t even know if she wants to learn” about public schools, Craig said.

Craig marched with Jillian Dufresne, who teaches English-language learners at the Rumsey Hall private school in Washington, Conn. Dufresne held up a sign that read “On the Bright Side No Grizzly Bears in Our Schools.” Dufresne acknowledged her school might actually benefit financially from a Trump administration’s policies.

But in Dufresne’s view, a big federal voucher expansion isn’t a great idea. Even though she might teach at a private school, Dufresne attended public schools and sees them as vital for democracy.

And Alicia Chase, who teaches technology to elementary school students at a public school in Saranac, N.Y. said her fears about where Trump wants to take public education are one of the main reasons that she made the trip to Washington.

Over the last couple of years, in Craig’s view, K-12 seemed to be headed in a better direction. There’s been less focus on testing, and more emphasis on students’ ability to master soft-skills, like collaboration and communication, she said.

Now Craig is deeply worried that’s “all going to get flushed down the toilet” under DeVos and Trump, who she thinks will focus on trying to disparage and discredit public schools. In his inaugural address Friday, Trump said American schools are “flush with cash but deprive our young and beautiful students of all knowledge.”

DeVos even got a shout-out (but not in a good way) from Michael Moore, the documentary director, who like DeVos is from Michigan. On the main stage, Moore urged the crowd to call their senators and ask them to reject DeVos. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also spoke on stage.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., and his family were also among the marchers.

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