By Amanda Litvinov
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Cathy Boote, a retired middle school art teacher from Holland, Michigan, has more than a passing familiarity with Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education.
Boote can see the DeVos family’s summer home from her own back patio. She knows people who grew up with Betsy DeVos, and they were both raised in different branches of the same church. Although the two women are both Republicans, their values and beliefs around education are sharply divided.
“Betsy DeVos is trying to change the entire premise of education in America,” said Boote, who taught for 37 years. “Her ultimate goal is to move along the message that using public dollars for private schools is not a problem.”
For educators like Boote, the idea of draining taxpayer money from public schools to pay for private school vouchers or for-profit charters goes against their Republican values of fiscal and social responsibility.
The DeVos family has spent upward of $10 million in lobbying for voucher programs across the country. Betsy DeVos serves as chairman of the American Federation for Children, the largest organization in the United States promoting vouchers, corporate tax credits and other school choice programs.
“We have to ask: What does that do to a community? When all the kids in the neighborhood go to different schools and their parents don’t meet each other through school events and activities? It divides communities rather than pulling them together,” Boote said.
David Kinsella, a high school special education teacher in Prince William County, Virginia, and Vice Chair of the NEA Republican Educator Caucus, is not surprised that DeVos is out of touch with the role that neighborhood schools play in most people’s lives.
“She has never attended a public school, nor did she send her children to public schools, nor has she ever worked in one,” said Kinsella. “That’s a huge concern. And it should concern everyone, no matter their political affiliation.”
“DeVos talks about ‘school choice’ as if it’s a positive thing—on the surface, choice doesn’t sound bad,” Kinsella said. “But make no mistake, it’s a smokescreen masking a privatization agenda.”
Nearly a million educators, of all political allegiances, have spoken out against the DeVos nomination by making calls and writing letters to their Senators.
One of them is E-Ben Grisby, a special education teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who is also a Republican.
“It angered me that she could be in charge of a federal education office and not even understand a law that is there to protect some of our most vulnerable students,” Grisby said, referring to DeVos’s inability to answer questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during her Senate confirmation hearing.
“How would she deal with equity and accessibility for students—or are those just non-issues to her?” Grisby wonders.
He encourages all educators, regardless of political affiliation, to question her nomination.
“The issue of who should serve as our next Secretary of Education goes beyond politics, this is about ethics,” said Grisby.
“Is it ethical to put someone in charge who has no idea how public schools operate and what we need for our students? Just because you question her appointment, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good Republican.”
David Kinsella takes it a step further.
“The president should have long list of candidates who are highly qualified. I don’t understand how Betsy DeVos was picked—I hate to think it’s because of her political donations, but it’s hard not to suspect that her immense wealth has played a role here.”
“For me the bottom line is that all students, including special education students, deserve to have their needs met in their public school, Kinsella said.
“I’m hearing our potential Secretary of Education pushing a privatization and pro-charter agenda; I’m not hearing anything about meeting the needs of students like mine. If you’re diverting funds away from public schools, students with special needs will be the first ones to lose.”