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Teaching Profession

AFT President: Unqualified ‘Ideologue’ Betsy DeVos Could Undo ESSA Consensus

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 09, 2017 4 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is unqualified to lead the U.S. Department of Education and threatens to undo the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Monday.

In a speech at the National Press Club, Weingarten said of DeVos, a Michigan school choice and Republican political activist: “She is poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America. If Donald Trump wanted an ideologue, he found one.”

Weingarten worried that DeVos could “reignite” education fights related to testing and teacher evaluations that ESSA has addressed by returning many decisions to states and local districts. And instead of the private school vouchers and other choice programs in Michigan and elsewhere that DeVos has supported, public schools could better serve students by emphasizing support for child well-being, building teacher capacity, creating more collaboration, and supporting “powerful” learning, Weingarten argued.

“What she brings to the table is an antipathy for public education,” Weingarten said of DeVos in an interview after her speech.

The organization DeVos used to lead that’s backed school choice programs, the American Federation for Children, called Weingarten’s speech a “last, desperate attempt to serve the status quo” fueled by her union’s campaign contributions to Democrats, not students’ interests. “It’s not a surprise that they are giving major speeches today because all they do is talk,” AFC spokesman Matt Frendewey said in the statement.

DeVos, a major contributor to GOP politicians, has an extensive record of supporting vouchers and other forms of choice in Michigan. She’s also been involved in debates about charter schools and charter accountability there.

It’s been a tough political year in some respects for Weingarten, the AFT, and teachers’ unions in general. The AFT and the National Education Association got behind Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton very early and vigorously supported her candidacy. (To get a taste of Weingarten’s thinking during the election, you can check out my story on a day she spent at the Democratic National Convention in July.)

With Clinton’s defeat, and Democrats in the minority in statehouses and governors’ mansions across the country, the unions face tricky political terrain over the next few years. However, both unions were supporters of ESSA, and they’re pushing to ensure that states embrace their priorities as education departments formulate their ESSA plans.

It’s for that reason and others that Weingarten said she’s so alarmed about DeVos, saying in her prepared remarks, “At every critical moment, she has tried to take the ‘public’ out of public education.” DeVos has shown no interest in charter accountability in Michigan, Weingarten said—her backers counter that DeVos does indeed support tough accountability for failing charters in Detroit.

Weingarten also took the time to scold Trump directly, saying that while her union and the president-elect agreed about the importance of career and technical education, Trump was wrong when he said on the campaign trail that America no longer does it, citing schools in Illinois, Ohio, and elsewhere that connect students to career opportunities in manufacturing and emergency services. She highlighted other examples of what she considered productive work in education, including district-union collaboration in Los Angeles suburbs, the union’s work in McDowell County, W.Va., and a parent-mentor program in Chicago.

Asked after her speech if she was worried that Congress would go along with a massive school choice expansion like the one Trump floated during the presidential campaign, Weingarten responded, “I am worried that Republicans will put party before country” and students.

“We’ve never raised this kind of objection” to an education secretary nominee, Weingarten added.

UPDATE: The leadership at the National Education isn’t any more excited about DeVos than its AFT colleagues are.

“I think from our perspective the nomination of Betsy DeVos is not about a person, it’s about an agenda that Donald Trump plans to pursue in his administration,” said Mary Kusler, the senior director of the NEA.

But Trump may have a tough time getting Congress to enact a large -scale voucher program along the lines of his $20 billion campaign proposal. thanks to opposition in his own party, she added. “Members on both sides of the aisle have consistently spoken out against the agenda,” she said.

She noted that amendments to allow Title I money and other federal funding to flow to private schools were introduced in both chambers during the debate over ESSA—and both times, the provisions failed to gain sufficient support to move forward. That was partly thanks to opposition from moderate Republicans and those from rural areas, such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Deb Fisher of Nebraska.

What’s more, Kusler considers DeVos “the least-qualified person we have ever seen nominated for secretary of education. ... She’s nothing more than lobbyist and political donor.” And DeVos never attended or sent her own children to public schools—and so has no experience as a public school student or parent, Kusler said. Read the NEA’s letter opposing DeVos here.

The NEA is also opposing the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to serve as Trump’s attorney general, in part because of what they cite as his views on special education, and his track record on civil rights in Alabama. Read the organization’s letter to lawmakers on the pick here.

In a Jan. 5 letter to U.S. senators, Weingarten also urged them to oppose DeVos’ nomination. You can read the full letter below:

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