American Federation of Teachers Head Criticizes DeVos, Calls for Commitment to Public Schools

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Molly McCluskey

WASHINGTON — American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten opposed the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, calling for a renewed commitment to, and investment in, public schools in a press conference at the National Press Club.

“I believe that whether one wants a less polarized environment, or a skilled workforce and more middle-class jobs, or pluralism and democracy, or diversity and tolerance, or just for children to thrive and be joyful, the answer always starts with a powerful, purposeful, public education,” Weingarten said Monday.

Speaking to standing-room-only audience, Weingarten excoriated President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Education, Republican fundraiser Betsy DeVos. Her confirmation hearing, originally set for Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has been delayed till Jan. 17. Democratic leaders had called for the hearing to be delayed until DeVos’ background investigation is completed, and she is fully screened for financial and ethical conflicts of interest.

Weingarten’s largest concern was that, given what she called DeVos’ anti-public school stance, the confirmation would undermine the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Weingarten credits with “ending the education wars.”

“ESSA quelled the education wars and enabled our shared attention to return to what works: collaboration, capacity building, powerful learning and the well-being of all children,” Weingarten said. “These are practical concepts that are scalable and sustainable, that Republicans and Democrats can support, and that red state and blue states, rural, suburban and urban schools can implement with the right investment and management.”

Weingarten called DeVos “the most anti-public education nominee for secretary of education in the history of the department,” owing to the fact that neither DeVos nor her children attended public schools, and DeVos has no experience in teaching or education policy.

On her website, DeVos calls herself  “an innovator, a disruptor and an advocate” for education.

“Disruption may be in vogue in business schools, but disrupting, rather than fixing struggling schools has come to mean mass firings, school closures and district or state takeovers,” Weingarten said.

DeVos is prevented from giving media interviews during the Senate confirmation process. However, Greg McNeilly, chief operating officer for the Windquest Group, the investment firm DeVos founded with her husband, responded via email to a request for comment on DeVos’ behalf, calling himself “long-time DeVos aide,” with the following statement:

“Betsy believes in a diversity of experiences and in supporting all of America’s students, regardless what label you put on their schools. America has so many hard-working teachers we need to support every high-quality learning opportunity for children and the good teachers in each classroom.”

Jeanne Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, called Weingarten’s speech a “partisan rant by the leader of the first national union to endorse the Democratic nominee in the last election, and they lost.”

“For the head of an organization that purports to represent teachers by attempting to create fear among them is outrageous and contradictory,” Allen wrote in a statement. “[Weingarten] claims that an agenda that promotes school options is anti-public education. The only thing anti-public education is those who oppose educating the public in any way that best suits the needs of its students.”

Should DeVos be confirmed, Weingarten issued this invitation: “Spend some time in our schools. There is no substitute for seeing firsthand what works so well in our public schools or for seeing the indefensible conditions that too many students, teachers, and staff endure.”

This story has been updated.