Eric Talbot, Cuba-Rushford Teachers’ Association president, knows most local public school funding comes from New York state, but he worries states will align with what he thinks are oncoming federal anti-public education policies.
Talbot knows there are few charter schools in his region, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come here, he said.
He and other educators locally and nationally are worried about such issues because of Betsy DeVos, the new leader of the U.S. Department of Education.
“There are so many things about public education that I don’t want her and her team throwing away or trying to throw away,” Talbot said. “It just seems as if she doesn’t see the value in what so many amazing teachers do across this country.”
DeVos, a GOP donor and Michigan billionaire who helped build the state’s charter school system, was confirmed as secretary of education Tuesday by the Senate, but only after a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence and a strong public outcry asking senators to not confirm her that jammed the congressional switchboard.
While her supporters credit DeVos for her dedication to school reform and trying to better children’s education, her opponents argue she’s unqualified due to a lack of public education experience and fear she’ll dismantle the nation’s public school systems in favor of charter and private schools.
Local teachers like Talbot and Bolivar-Richburg Faculty Association President Andrew Bogey, both members of New York State United Teachers, said they were disheartened but not surprised by DeVos’ confirmation.
“Whatever happened to doing what was right for, in this case, our kids and our schools? It shouldn’t be a Democrat and Republican issue — it should be that these are our kids,” Talbot said. “I think people are going to see that senators, rather than listening to their constituents, listened to the dollar signs that they received from Betsy DeVos over the years.”
New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with every other Democratic senator, voted against DeVos’ confirmation. Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Reed of New York’s 23rd Congressional District, who did not have a vote but worked as a vice chairman on President Donald Trump’s transition team, said he’s looking forward to working with all of Trump’s Cabinet picks and he’s a “firm believer in public education.”
“I graduated from a public high school, my daughter graduated from a public high school and my son attends a public high school. I care about the children of this district and will work to make sure they have an education that sets them up for a successful life,” Reed said in an email.
Educators have argued DeVos showed she’s unqualified during her Senate confirmation hearing a few weeks ago. Bogey said he was alarmed that DeVos appeared to not understand proficiency versus growth — the debate whether to evaluate students’ academic success on meeting benchmarks or by progression year to year — and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that protects students with disabilities.
“I worry personally for any parent that has a child with special needs,” Talbot added.
Asked if he feels DeVos is qualified to run the education department, Reed said it’s a good thing Trump has drawn people from a “variety of backgrounds” into his administration.
“We can’t fix what is wrong with government without having new people involved — people who are not beholden to the Washington establishment,” he said.
DeVos is an advocate for charter schools, which receive government funding but operate privately, and vouchers, which allow students to pay tuition at private schools using public money. Some teachers fear DeVos will strip funding from public schools in favor of charter schools and school voucher programs.
“My biggest fear is she'll pull away the much-needed funds we need to do our jobs,” Bogey said.
Paul Hessney, an Olean City School District board of education member, has been outspoken against DeVos in public board meetings and tried to get a board resolution opposing her confirmation. Although the district — which received $2.3 million in federal grants this year — is mostly funded by the state, any decrease in federal funding would be harmful, he said.
“I think obviously we’re not going to lose all of those funds, but even a 1 or 2 percent hit in a budget the size of Olean, which is over $40 million, would be significant,” he said.
Charter school supporters have argued that “school choice” will improve the education system by giving students options to attend better-performing schools and create competition between schools. Reed said that parents should be empowered to make decisions on their children’s education and education cannot be “one size fits all.”
Hessney, a former district teacher, argued charter schools often perform worse than their public school counterparts, yet don’t have the same accountability. He also noted vouchers create a constitutional issue in that they publicly fund religious schools.
Bogey said public school teachers are held to higher standards and must meet certain benchmarks, while charter schools do not.
“It just undermines public education because, in essence, we’re held to higher standards, and if (charter schools are) not they can say that they're better, when in reality they’re not,” he said.
New York State United Teachers will continue to advocate for public education, Bogey and Talbot indicated, and work with local legislators to prevent “negative things that might be coming down from the very top on a national level.”
“We have to just continue the fight,” Talbot said. “We will also work our best for our students and communities and our families that we serve. ... They can appoint anyone as education secretary and that will never change. We will continue to do our best in spite of her.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)