Not Good, but Not the End of the World

Today, as expected, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education  The Senate voted 50-50, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.

It is understandable that people may be very disheartened by this news, but there are are at least three reasons to view this as – well, not a good thing, but certainly not as bad as many might fear.

  1. Yes, Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the position. And yes, many of the philosophies she espouses run counter to the the ideals of public education. But we need to remember that as inept as she may be, the reality is that the role of Department of Education is very limited. She does not have the ability to privatize public schools, mandate vouchers, or force creationism into the curriculum. Education is still a locally controlled entity, and, if anything, one of the main reasons that GOP Senators have given for supporting her is that she will help return more control back to the states. Beyond that, there is reason to believe that while Republicans backed her out of party loyalty, she doesn’t really have much more credibility with them than she does with Democrats and this lack of credibility will “clip her wings,” inhibiting her from doing too much damage.

    This is not to say she can’t do any damage (This NPR story lists some areas of concern, including a few related to higher ed and the fear that with less Federal oversight “some states will be less vigilant than others in identifying and correcting historic educational inequities of race and class.”), but her confirmation will not bring about the end of pubic education.

  2. It would be crazy for anyone who cares about public education to celebrate today’s result, but there is a school of thought that suggests it actually would have been worse if a third Republican had turned against the party and voted her down.

    Keep in mind, had DeVos not been confirmed, Trump was not going to be chastened by the defeat and nominate an actual educator in her place. He would have simply found someone else of a similar ideological mindset to DeVos, who, by comparison, would undoubtedly seem like a relatively reasonable choice, thus diffusing some of the controversy and protest at a time we need to remain vigilant.

    As mentioned before, there has never been this much attention paid to a nominee for Secretary of Education. Because she is so polarizing, people who never gave thought to the topic are now speaking up against what she stands for, which can only serve to help the cause of public education. As one policy wonk put it in the Atlantic, “It will only help them because they can constantly point to her as the symbol of everything that’s wrong. … People who care about public education have a real opportunity here to say, ‘Okay, we’ve all been talking about this a lot. Let’s really think about what our public-education system needs to sustain itself robustly for the next century, so people like Betsy DeVos don’t want to keep tearing it down.”

  3. Again, the outcry against Ms. DeVos was absolutely unprecedented – not just for an Education Secretary, but for any cabinet nominee. Educators, parents, writers, activists, politicians, celebrities, and civil rights groups, generated a stunning level of resistance that literally overwhelmed many Senate offices. However… the fact that it did not succeed could easily lead to the conclusion that political action is dead – that we have reached the point where politicians are 100% indifferent to the wishes of their constituents.

    But that is not the right conclusion to draw. The DeVos debacle is a special case (and this piece in Slate explains just why there really was no point in waiting for one more Republican to buck the party).  Over time we’ve highlighted example after example of how political action works and think it’s worthwhile to point out two very recent examples you may have missed.

    • Just a few weeks ago, the House GOP pulled back on their plan to gut ethics rules after they were deluged by calls and letters from angry voters.
    • Last week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz was forced to withdraw a bill that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of Federal land “after a fierce backlash from hunters, sportsmen and women, and conservationists on both the left and the right”

The point is that, while there are significant exceptions, political action does work.

So, please. Don’t be disheartened and don’t give up. We need to keep working and doing what we do best, and we will prevail.

Hats for Alexa

Alexa Boucher is a 9th grader at the High School who was recently diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma – a type of soft tissue cancer.

Alexa’s prognosis is good, and she will be receiving treatment for the next year.

Along with other efforts, the “Fight Like A Girl Team” is selling winter hats as a fundraiser to help with medical expenses, and SWRTA is assisting in the sale of these hats.

Not only will your purchase support the Boucher family and show Alexa how much the SWR community cares, you’ll be getting a warm winter hat that’s well made and very comfy.

If you’d like one (or more), please send $15 per hat (cash, or a check made out to “cash”) to Rob Verbeck at Wading River School. There is no firm deadline, but it will make it easier if we can get all orders in by Friday, February 3rd.

hat alexa

Not Just DeVos

Before we get into the update on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a couple of local items of interest.

Lessons in Falling
As reported in the Riverhead News Review, a forthcoming novel from SWR alumna Diana Gallagher was named by Barnes and Noble as one of the Top 10 Most-Anticipated Indie Young Adult books of 2017.

“Lessons in Falling,” scheduled for release on February 7th, is a story about “two best friends grappling with the aftermath of the one friend’s suicide attempt.” Ms. Gallagher is quoted as saying that she “remembers hearing reports of suicides or attempted suicides during all four of her high school years,” and that she hopes this book “will help break the stigma surrounding the subject.”

It is immeasurably heartbreaking that that this topic is still so relevant. But it is good to see efforts being made to deal with it, and resources (especially YA Fiction) that can help our students make sense of it are always welcome.

Tesla Museum
CBS reported that construction is about to begin on the Tesla Museum in Shoreham. This is great news for our community and for the memory of a nearly forgotten genius.  It’s expected that the welcome center will open by the end of this year and the full museum will open within three years.

A few local people are quoted in the article, including Jane Alcorn and Marc Alessi, but we’d like to highlight three SWRTA Retirees who have given lots of time and energy to the museum, including running their after school education programs: Deb Lohman, Carol Davis-Wiebelt, and Mary Schwartz. Thank you for your tireless efforts in keeping our students engaged and interested in science. (Special thanks to Carol in particular for teaching me that “Tesla > Edison”).

More DeVos?
If we’re gong to broach this topic again, let’s start with two positives.

The first is that while previous Education Secretary appointments have gotten some press attention, it has never been like this. Stories about John King, Arne Duncan, and their predecessors, were mostly limited to education journals or columns. But the DeVos train wreck has gone mainstream.

Trevor Noah did a segment on the Daily Show.  The New Yorker offered up the Betsy DeVos standardized Test. Cartoons and memes are all over the internet (see below). Even Newsday has come out against her.

Sadly, this probably won’t stop her from being confirmed. But it does help our cause in giving the general public a much clearer picture of how public education is under attack in this country, and may well help us grow support as it becomes ever more necessary.

The second encouraging element of this story is that the vote to confirm Ms. DeVos has been pushed back a week to January 31st. For their part, the GOP leadership is not giving any indication that this means that their support has wavered at all. In fact, rather than seeing her dismal performance as an indication of her lack of qualification for the job, Sen. Alexander blamed the Democrats for asking “gotcha” questions.

Still, while the odds of stopping DeVos are long, the delay allows a little more time to make the effort. If you haven’t gotten to read up on why DeVos would be a disaster for public education, please see my previous post or read this article from the Washington Post.  Then…

Call our Senators:

Contact the Senators on the Health, Education, and Labor Committee

If you don’t know what to say, this link has some sample scripts.

Stopping DeVos

As you surely have heard, hearings were held on Tuesday for Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  By any reasonable standard she showed herself to be completely unprepared for the hearing and completely unqualified for the position.

How bad was it?  She wouldn’t/couldn’t answer questions, didn’t understand basic education concepts, wouldn’t commit to upholding basic values, and didn’t realize the IDEA is Federal law (and that’s not even mentioning the grizzly bears).

For a great summary, please see this article in Mother Jones  (with video clips).

In the world we live in, nobody who performed so poorly on an interview could have any hope that they’d actually get the position. Nonetheless, based on the comments of HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander and other Senate leaders, she will almost certainly be confirmed. Sadly, while this is an affront to anyone who values education, it should not be a surprise. As Shaun King of the Daily News wrote, “Donald Trump’s cabinet is the least educated in modern American history,” but all reports indicate that they will all sail though their confirmation hearings.

Time to throw our hands up? Certainly not. The odds of stopping DeVos’s appointment are slim, but it it’s not done until it’s done. And even though we already can feel confident that our Senators will oppose her, it’s still worthwhile to let them know how we feel – that we support them for supporting us.

And the bigger picture, of course, is that even when the odds are high against us, we still must speak out lest our silence be interpreted as acquiescence.

Please see the letter below from Carol Burris, Executive Director of NPE.


I am sure that you were as appalled as I was by yesterday’s HELP committee hearing on the appointment of Betsy DeVos.

– DeVos had no understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

–She would not promise to defend the rights of students with disabilities in all schools that receive federal funds.

–She refused to commit to keeping our schools free of guns, using “grizzly bear attacks” as the excuse.

–She refused to agree that voucher private schools, online schools and charter schools should have the same accountability to students as public schools.

–She had no idea of the differences between proficiency scores and growth scores.

–She refused to discuss the failings of the charter schools of Detroit.

She is woefully unprepared, and apparently made no attempt to familiarize herself with the obligations of a US Secretary of Education.

We are asking you to write your senators and ask them to commit to voting against her appointment. They should make that commitment known to members of the HELP committee today.

We make it simple. Click here and you will find a letter that you can send to your senators. Post the link to this message on your Facebook Page.

Thanks for all you do. We must stand up for the integrity of our schools and the welfare of our students.

Carol Burris

Executive Director

The Network for Public Education is a 501(c)(3). All donations are tax deductible. You can make a donation here.

Trump Selects DeVos for DOE

Trump Nominates Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary
Prior to (and immediately after) the election, most of the press reported that there was a big question mark about exactly what direction (and how far) Trump might go in terms of public education.

With his selection of Betsy DeVos, he has made his intentions quite clear, and it doesn’t look very good for the future of public education.

While we derided John King for (among many other things) how little time he actually spent as a teacher, Ms. DeVos has never worked in a school in any capacity. Not only did her children not go to public schools, she herself never spent a day in one. In fact, Ms. DeVos’s only “qualification” for the job is that she is a billionaire who has forcefully advocated for school choice and for “breach[ing] the wall between church and state on education.”

And while we criticized John King (and various politicians on the left) for giving too much support to charter schools, according The New York Times, “It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos.”

For nearly 30 years, as a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence.

And remember how we pilloried John King for his tone-deafness and lack of responsiveness to teachers, parents, and, especially, at-risk students? From ThinkProgress:

Teachers have been bringing awareness to the issue of poor funding of Detroit schools in the form of protests. Last January, teachers protested the conditions of public schools and took photos of inedible food, damaged school buildings, and dead rodents and posted them on social media. Since then, there have inspections of schools, which confirmed that many schools were unsafe places for kids.

In the midst of all of these issues, DeVos has pushed for less regulation and oversight of charter schools and stated that public schools are failing children — all without advocating for better state funding of public schools.

To be sure, there are arguments on both sides of the school choice issue (although this essay does a great job of dispelling the myths).  For their part, proponents of charter schools argue that they are fighting to rescue children from failing public schools. But the lie that they are putting children first is completely exposed when they push for less regulation. If you missed John Oliver’s brilliant take-down of the the corruption and fraud resulting from lax charter regulation, it’s worth a look.

It’s also interesting to note that while Ms. DeVos has gotten some support (Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called her an “excellent choice”), even proponents of charter schools have issues with what she’s done. In a NYT Op-Ed piece, Douglas Harris writes “As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”

The bottom line is that Trump has chosen a Secretary of Education with no experience in public education, and whose only connection to the education system is turning it over to for-profit operators with little-to-no oversight. Combined with his one major ed-policy proposal (diverting $20B in federal funding to block grants which could be used for private or charter schools) this makes it is clear that those of us who care about the future of public education will have quite a fight on our hands over the next four years.

The Network for Public Education has created a form you can use to tell our Senators to reject Betsy DeVos. You can find it here.