Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a ‘Horrifying Prospect’ for Public Schools

Responding to the DeVos confirmation hearings, award-winning Chicago public school teacher Erika Wozniak says bi-partisan support for school privatization paved the way for Trump’s Education Secretary

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education battled Senate Democrats in the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday. The wealthy Republican donor and school privatization crusader lacks any experience or expertise in public education, Betsy DeVos. She stood firm about her beliefs.

BETSY DEVOS: If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But if a school is troubled or unsafe or not a good fit for a child, perhaps they have a special need that’s going unmet, we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative.

JAISAL NOOR: But many members of the committee grilled her over her beliefs about public schools, her incomplete ethics disclosures, and higher education, and whether she would be the nominee if she and her family hadn’t given massive sums of money to the Republican Party.

BERNIE SANDERS: My question is – and I don’t mean to be rude – but do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?

BETSY DEVOS: Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for parents… voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.

JAISAL NOOR: DeVos’s background of pushing vouchers, privatization, so-called “school choice” and undermining school accountability have drawn the ire of public school advocates, students and parents across the country, including our next guest, Erika Wozniak. She’s a Chicago public school teacher, rank and file member of the Chicago Teachers Union and an education activist.

2016, Erika was awarded the Everyday Hero Award from the American Federation of Teachers.

Thank you so much for taking your lunch break to talk to us. Can you give us your response to DeVos’s testimony, on Tuesday? You wrote that “DeVos is a horrifying prospect for public schools”. Can you explain that?

ERIKA WOZNIAK: Yeah, I mean, after last night’s confirmation hearing, we saw how horrifying she is. I mean, she’s talking about the prospect of having guns in schools because of grizzly bears, so she’s horrifying because of her track record in Michigan and other states, and she’s also horrifying because of her ideals of privatizing our public school system, and she’s also horrifying because she’s clearly incompetent to be our Education Secretary.

JAISAL NOOR: Senate Democrats were also angered they would only get one round of questions with DeVos who has not held a formal position in the education field, but has been a wealthy donor for education issues. One of the most startling encounters occurred after Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota questioned DeVos, on analysis of student achievement, and whether she backed growth versus proficiency measurements. She seemed to lack any understanding. Here’s that clip.

AL FRANKEN: And I would like your views on the relative advantage of measuring… doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth.

BETSY DEVOS: Well, thank you, Senator, for that question. I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that you… each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.

AL FRANKEN: Well, that’s growth.

BETSY DEVOS: The ma… eh…

AL FRANKEN: That’s not proficiency. So, in other words, the growth they’re making, is in growth, the proficiency is…

BETSY DEVOS: If they’ve…

AL FRANKEN: …an arbitrary standard…

BETSY DEVOS: …reached a level… the proficiency is if they’ve reached a… like, third grade level for reading, et cetera.

AL FRANKEN: No, I’m talking about the debate between proficiency and growth.

BETSY DEVOS: Yes.

AL FRANKEN: What your thoughts are on them?

BETSY DEVOS: Well, I was just asking to clarify, then…

AL FRANKEN: Well, this is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. And I’ve advocated growth, as the Chairman and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency…

BETSY DEVOS: You’re looking back…

AL FRANKEN: …teachers ignore the kids at the top, who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency. So I’ve been an advocate of growth. But it surprises me that you don’t know this issue. And, Mr. Chairman, I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions.

ERIKA WOZNIAK: Yeah, that again was – I’ll use the same word – horrifying. She had no idea what he was talking about. This is something that I talk about on a weekly basis with my students, and the fact that she had no idea what the difference was between being proficient and having a student make growth, shows that she is completely incompetent and unqualified to be the Education Secretary. I mean, she doesn’t know basic lingo of education.

JAISAL NOOR: And you also write that she has no experience in public schools. She didn’t send her children to public schools. She’s a multi-billionaire. Her family has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party. That represents the worst in as far as our society goes, with the rich telling working class people, poor people, how they should run their lives, what the future for their children to hold. How do you respond to that?

ERIKA WOZNIAK: Yeah, I think another horrifying moment from last night was when she told Bernie Sanders that sometimes people have to learn that they have to work for things, and that you have to work to get things like paying college tuition. She hasn’t had to work for anything. Her family has billions and billions of dollars. Her family has millions of dollars, and the family that she married into has millions of dollars that they can just throw away to the Republican Party to then get nominations.

So, I just can’t believe that this was the best choice that we have in this country. It’s a clear danger to the future of public education, and I for one, as a public school teacher, as a person who went to public schools, as somebody who would like to someday have children and send my children to public schools, I’m, again, horrified and flabbergasted at everything that she said last night. There was not one thing that made sense to me. Not one thing.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally – we know you have to go, your kids are going to come back from lunch – but, lastly, Chicago has been the Ground Zero for neoliberal education reform, charter schools, privatization, school closings for many years now. That’s happened under both Democrat and Republican administrations. I know the Chicago Teachers Union, which you are a member of, has been leading the opposition to this, nationally and in Chicago, with the radical core(?) taking office a few years ago, to oppose such policies. What does the future of public education look like with DeVos as head? Will it be important for teachers and students to organize and to demand they have a voice in how their schools are run?

ERIKA WOZNIAK: Yeah. I think what’s happened here in Chicago with the 49 school closings and with the mass privatization with our charter schools, we’ve paved the way for somebody like Betsy DeVos to get this nomination. And public school students, teachers, and parents specifically are going to need to make a choice and say, we are going to invest in our neighborhood public schools, because the neighborhood public schools should be the anchors of our communities. The school that I am sitting in right now is an anchor of our community and that’s what every single child in this country deserves, to have a neighborhood public school that a parent can send their kid to and they can go to and they can feel that they’re getting the best education possible. And Betsy DeVos will directly stand in the way of that happening for our children.

JAISAL NOOR: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us.

ERIKA WOZNIAK: Thanks so much for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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