Editor’s Note: Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary on Tuesday, Feb. 7, following a full Senate vote, which resulted in a 50-50 tie. Vice President Mike Pence administered the tie-breaking vote in DeVos’s favor, the first time in history that a vice president has had to do so for a Cabinet nomination. Democrats held the floor for 24 hours preceding the final vote in an attempt to sway Republican senators to vote against Devos’s confirmation, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Senators voted along party lines, with the exception of Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who opposed her nomination. The story below went to press on Monday, Feb. 6.
School districts across the country have been actively taking firm stances opposing the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s controversial nomination for education secretary. The Syosset Central School District, Plainview School District and New Hyde Park-Garden City Park School District, just a few among many other public education institutions on Long Island dissatisfied with the proposed Cabinet pick, recently voiced its sentiment on the matter, expressing praise for New York State Senator Chuck Schumer’s opposition.
“The Syosset Central School District Board of Education wishes to commend you for your stated opposition to the confirmation of Ms. Betsy DeVos to the position of secretary of education in the Trump administration,” reads the opening line of a letter to Schumer, dated Jan. 27 and signed by the Syosset Board of Education. “The Syosset Board shares your opposition and wishes to convey its rationale in reinforcement of your decision.”
The letter continues on to explain that DeVos’s ideals are a direct contradiction to the values of the school district, and that “she has fallen far short” of the district’s expectations. Concerns revolve around a lack of knowledge behind strategies to improve districts nationwide, a philosophical difference regarding the effectiveness of school choice, an inability to recognize the needs of special education students and a nonexistent plan of action regarding the allocation of millions of dollars in federal resources.
Syosset, a school district that has been ranked nationally and repeatedly recognized for its excellence, fears that DeVos’s ideologies have the potential to dismantle not just its system, but the entire public education system.
“We wanted to explain as best we could how our school exemplifies the accomplishments of public education when its programs and initiatives are supported by district and a whole community,” said Tracy Frankel of Syosset’s Board of Education.
Plainview’s board listed an array of concerns against President Donald Trump’s pick for the country’s top education spot, including her lack of appropriate qualifications, insufficient knowledge of basic education laws, support for privatization and poor track record.
“Ms. DeVos has never worked in a public school, has never attended a public school and has never sent her children to a public school,” the Plainview board said in a statement. “With the vast majority of the nation’s students enrolled in public schools, we believe it is vitally important that the secretary truly understand the needs and challenges of those who attend and work in the public school system.”
The Plainview board also said that during a section of her confirmation hearing, DeVos—whose family donated upwards of $200 million to Trump’s election campaign—lacked insight regarding the basic tenets of educational laws and issues.
“Specifically,” the board stated, “those designed to protect our most vulnerable students. She also has no experience in higher education and limited understanding of the growing problem of student debt.”
The week before Trump’s inauguration, the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park board approved a resolution opposing the DeVos nomination. The vote was 4-1, with one abstention and one board member, David Del Santo, absent from the meeting.
Patricia Rudd, a board member, based her opposition on what she said was DeVos’s lack of educational experience. In explaining his decision to abstain, Ernest Gentile said that he did not know enough about the nominee to cast a vote, while James Reddan voted against the resolution. The vote came after a request from Ralph Ratto, president of the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park Teachers Association, the school district’s teachers union. The board’s resolution claimed that DeVos was “a candidate apparently lacking any credentials as an educator.”
DeVos’s nomination has been a point of contention among school districts, educators, parents and elected officials since Trump’s announcement of his intent to appoint the Republican activist and philanthropist on Nov. 22. Known for her adamant support of charter schools and K-12 tuition voucher programs, the conservative mega-donor has been vocal about her intentions to expand the private school system, raising concerns that the nominee could prove detrimental to the funding and overall fate of public education.
Fears were deepened by the proceedings of DeVos’s Cabinet hearing on Jan. 17, a full committee hearing during which DeVos’s “grizzly bear” justification regarding gun policy on school premises set off a firestorm of ridicule. Her competence was further undermined by her inability to correctly distinguish between growth and proficiency, two traditional, but vastly different, ways by which to evaluate students.
“Every single one of my classmates can properly delineate between growth and proficiency, two rudimentary education terms that she couldn’t even attempt to articulate the difference between,” said Joshua Lafazan, a member of Syosset’s Board of Education and a graduate student at Harvard’s School of Education. “She is wholly and uniquely unqualified for this position.”
Despite a push by Republicans for swift approval, certain moderate senators within the party, including Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have cited their refusal to vote in favor of the nominee.
Schumer, like many of his Democratic counterparts, has been an outspoken opponent, publicly asserting his belief that Betsy DeVos could “single-handedly decimate our public education system.”
In a statement regarding Trump’s Cabinet nominations, Schumer said, “The people that the president has nominated to serve in his Cabinet will have incredible power over millions of Americans and in shaping what kind of country we are going to be. I’ve made it very clear I will vote no on nominees DeVos (education), Tillerson (state) and Sessions (attorney general). Nothing will change that…”
But those in favor of the Michigan native view her lack of experience in the realm of public education as advantageous. They praise her ongoing push to expand the prominence and availability of charter schools and commend her years of experience in defending the Detroit charter school system, serving on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and acting as chairwoman of the board of Alliance for School Choice.
Despite varying opinions regarding DeVos’s readiness to head the department, on Jan. 31, a Senate panel narrowly voted in favor of the pick, with a final tally of 12-11 along party lines. Her appointment now rests in the hands of a full Senate vote, expected to take place at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 7, in which she will need a simple majority to receive final confirmation. In the case of a tie, Vice President Mike Pence will administer the deciding vote, the first time in history that a vice president would have to do so for a Cabinet appointment.
If DeVos is successful in securing the position of education secretary, members of the Syosset Board of Education have expressed that they will continue to be relentless in making their grievances and opinions known at all levels of government.
“We will have to continue to monitor what decisions she makes and make our thoughts known to her as well as to our senators and congressmen,” said Susan Parker of Syosset’s Board of Education. “We will certainly be keeping a strong eye out and making our voices heard however possible.”
For the past month, the New York State United Teachers Union (NYSUT) has been petitioning school districts to pass similar resolutions. Among the Long Island districts passing such a resolution were Bay Shore, Patchogue-Medford, Sachem and Miller Place. Statewide, school districts in Albany, Ardsley, Beacon, Clarkstown, Comsewogue, Connetquot, Hastings-On-Hudson, Irvington, Kingston, Longwood, Middletown, New Paltz, Niagara Falls, Plattsburg, Rochester, Schenectady, South Seneca and Williamsville Central School District.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two largest teachers unions, oppose DeVos’ confirmation.