When Education Secretary Betsy Devos came to the Kennedy School of Government last week, she faced protesters outside the school as well as inside.
The crowd outside included members of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of teachers, parents, students, and civil rights groups. They were out front with signs and amplifiers making it clear that they think Devos is unqualified for the job, and a danger to the public education system.
Devos was speaking at a forum called “The Future of School Choice,” and numerous outlets reported that inside the venue students silently protested by holding up signs. As an advocate of funneling public money into quasi-private schools with limited public accountability, Devos drew the ire of public school advocates, as well as criticism over her stance on Title IX.
DeVos has helped charter schools multiply, although not flourish, in her home state of Michigan, where the Detroit Free Press has reported, the test scores are low, and the administrators overpaid. People also noted that the billionaire DeVos has no significant experience in the public school system.
“Betsy DeVos really doesn’t have the experience necessary to be Secretary of Education,” said Graciela Mohamedi, a physics teacher at Rockland High School who emceed the outdoor protest. “To have someone who not just has no experience with public schools but also has systematically fought against public schools in her home state of Michigan, it seems counterintuitive to have her running the federal department in charge of education.”
Mohamedi said that DeVos’s devotion to charter schools has the potential to do real damage to the public education system by turning students into customers.
“Some charter schools are going to be great, but the fact is when we have so many charter schools, and they’re not being regulated properly and we’re putting money into privatizing our public education system, the actual point of educating our children goes out the window. We stop looking at our children as people deserving of an education and we start looking at them with dollar signs and that isn’t OK.”
Mohamedi noted that there is a direct impact on public schools when state money is given to charter schools.
“Having a ton of charter schools, or having any charter schools, is going to pull money away from the public education system in the town or city. Typically, the money follows the kid, so if the kid goes to a charter school that charter school is going is going to receive the funds that were designated for that child in that municipality. If the child leaves the charter school, if the charter school closes, the charter school keeps the money but the kid ends up right back in the public school and the public school has less of a budget.”
She that charter schools are also ableist, legally discriminating against developmentally disabled students while hiding behind supposed “lottery” admission systems.
“Charter schools have the right to say no to any child, public schools do not. My job is to educate every student. A charter school has the ability to pick and choose,” Mohamedi said.
In addition to protesting DeVos, people held signs denouncing a local proponent of charter schools, Boston Elementary and Secondary Education board chair Paul Sagan, who donated $100,000 to the “Yes on 2” campaign, a ballot question that, had it passed, would have increased the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts.
Protester Nancy Aykanian said that Sagan and DeVos are “Two peas in a pod.”
“The real problem is, he’s on the side of privatizing public education, and here he is appointed to be the chairman of the board of education in Boston, so it’s a huge conflict of interest,” Aykanian said. “It’s also inappropriate to put a person like him, who’s truly from the one percent, to be in charge of running our public school system.”
Rachel Dudley, a grade nine teacher in Dedham, noted that charter schools aren’t always forthright in the admissions process when it comes to enrolling – and keeping – kids who are on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) who may need extra support in the classroom.
“Either their services aren’t met or they’re counseled out of the schools,” Dudley said. “ Meaning that it’s suggested that maybe that charter school isn’t the right place for them and so then their families are ‘encouraged’ to look at other options.”
Mark Quinones, a world history and social studies teacher for grades 11 and 12 at Somerville High School, said that the lack of transparency in charter schools allows them to get away with unfair admissions practices.
“I think it’s a little bit difficult with charter schools, because even though they say they have a lottery system that makes it a little bit more fair for students to get in, once they’re in there are different things that are done to not provide the services that the student actually needs because there’s less accountability than there is in a public school system.”
While public schools are overseen by elected school committees, charter schools are generally run by boards that are not subject to the state’s open records law.
Protesters also expressed concern about DeVos’s decision to rescind Title IX sexual assault guidelines that were issued to colleges by Obama in 2011. The guidelines were aimed at making it easier for alleged victims to come forward, but DeVos has made it clear she believes they’re unfair to the accused.
DeVos invited victims and “men’s rights” activists to advise her on how to proceed regarding campus rape policies, and at the protest of her appearance some spoke up on behalf of victims..
“I wanted to come out here and disagree with her statement of having more protections for the accused,” said Bailey Polacek, a Junior at Emmanuel College. “They are completely protected, they’re on the quad with their friends laughing, they’re not thinking about it when they’re studying in their room, they’re not thinking about it every time they hear a song, they’re untouched basically…As opposed to everyday, every second thinking about what happened and you feel guilt because you want people to just see you as a victim.”