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Not All GOP Educators Who Backed Trump Support DeVos

By Alyson Klein — January 26, 2017 3 min read
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Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, got a warm reception from Republicans on the Senate education committee during her confirmation hearing last week. But some conservative educators aren’t nearly as enamored with her, even though polls show many of them voted for her would-be boss.

Case-in-point: Lindsey Barnes, a lifelong Republican who serves as an elementary school instructional coach in Kansas City Public Schools. Barnes supported for Trump in part because her husband, a doctor, feels limited in his work by the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

But she is unhappy with Trump’s choice for secretary. “I totally don’t support her, I think she’s the wrong pick,” Barnes said. “When you don’t have a basic understanding of title funds [such as special education] that’s troubling to me,” she added, referring to an exchange DeVos had with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., during her confirmation where she appeared confused about federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Barnes and her husband have already called their representatives in Congress, urging a no vote on DeVos.

Janet Elaine Paige, a Republican and a retired teacher who has worked in both Texas and New Hampshire, said she voted for Trump because she was worried about what kind of justices his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, would have put on the Supreme Court.

But she doesn’t support DeVos because, in Paige’s view, she has “no experience with public education, nor special education.” And DeVos, she said, seems to favor school choice as the only solution to education’s problems. “If she is allowed to implement her philosophies, it could [potentially] ruin our public schools as we know them now.”

And Ben Lewis, a social studies teacher at Brenham Middle School in Brenham, Texas, who was in Washington for Trump’s inauguration told us last week that, while he’s surrounded by politically conservative teachers, he hasn’t met a single teacher who has said he or she likes DeVos.

Molly Spearman, the elected Republican state chief in South Carolina, said she shared other educators’ concerns about DeVos’ lack of experience in public schools and apparent grasp of policy. But Spearman is optimistic that DeVos will turn authority on K-12 back to states and districts.

In particular, Spearman, a former teacher and assistant principal, said she found DeVos’ seeming confusion on federal special education laws “disturbing ... I would say, if she’s confirmed, she definitely needs to work very closely with folks in the field” on special education.

But Spearman said she liked how DeVos indicated she would defer to states to make decisions about school choice programs. And she thinks DeVos would flesh out the department with people experienced in key policy areas.

“I’m sure she’s smart enough to surround herself with folks who cover those areas,” Spearman said.

To be sure, teachers on the other side of the aisle have found themselves in a similar position before. Many educators were deeply skeptical of—or outright angry with—Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan, who pushed teacher evaluation tied in part to tests. That didn’t stop them from voting for Obama a second time around and volunteering for his re-election campaign.

And other Republican educators see DeVos as a potential change agent. Benjamin Coates, who teaches kindergarten in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, is a one-time charter teacher who is heartened that DeVos will support those schools and give the system a much needed shake-up.

“Many low-income schools have been failing for so long. We definitely need change,” he said.

For her part, DeVos said in her testimony that—even though she and her children attended private schools—her mother, Elsa Prince, was a public school teacher.

She also emphasized her own experiences mentoring in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“I’ve worked with many dedicated teachers who strive every day to help students achieve, fulfill their potential, and prepare them for the global challenges that they will face,” DeVos said.

Assistant editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.

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