DeVos Divide

On eve of DeVos vote, Alexander hears from protesters across Tennessee

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Citizens congregate Monday in front of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's Memphis office to speak out against Betsy DeVos's nomination as the nation's next secretary of education.

Holding a megaphone in one hand and a “No 2 DeVos” sign in the other, Will Kelley expressed incredulity that, as a high school teacher in Tennessee, he has more public education experience than the next possible U.S. secretary of education.

“(My students) deserve a quality public education. They deserve someone who knows what they’re doing. I deserve a boss who knows what they’re doing. Betsy DeVos has no clue what she’s doing,” said Kelley, who teaches history at Kirby High School in Memphis.

Kelley was among about 100 educators and parents who gathered Monday afternoon outside U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office in downtown Memphis to protest DeVos’s nomination on the eve of her confirmation vote by a Senate panel he chairs. Other protests were held in Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby High School teacher Will Kelley speaks out.

The Memphis demonstration was organized by a group of education and civil rights organizations calling themselves the Tennessee Organizers Against Betsy DeVos. They include the United Education Association of Shelby County, Tennessee PTA, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, and Black Lives Matter Memphis.

President Donald Trump’s choice of DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education has been among his most contentious cabinet picks. In Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month, the Michigan billionaire acknowledged that she has little to no direct experience in public education.

As such, many educators and parents have said DeVos is unqualified because her only connection to public education has been advocacy and philanthropy — not as a parent, teacher or administrator. But school choice advocates have praised her philanthropy to expand charter schools and private school vouchers in Michigan.

Alexander has called DeVos an “excellent choice” and indicated that he will support her. The Tennessee Republican is himself a former U.S. secretary of education, from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Alexander said there is value in an education secretary who is not entrenched in the system.

“I recruited David Kearns, the head of Xerox to be deputy secretary when I was education secretary,” Alexander told senators. “He used to tell me it was difficult to reform public education from within. She is from outside public education in that sense, just as David Kearns was and does anyone really expect President Trump to appoint someone from the education establishment to be education secretary?”

Read more about her legacy in Michigan. Can Betsy DeVos be blamed for the state of Detroit’s schools? What you need to know

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said DeVos’s support of vouchers and for-profit charter operators in Michigan is a threat to traditional school funding and strong accountability for charter schools.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pamela Moses, co-founder of Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter, speaks at Monday’s rally.

“School choice is really an illusion,” Rucker said. “In her home state of Michigan, the results of the overall test scores for charter schools are lower than traditional public schools. That is an injustice to our students and our communities. And that is an injustice that we cannot afford to risk with America’s public education system.”

Pamela Moses, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Memphis, said she fears DeVos would divert funding from public schools, and that a decreased investment in schools would lead to an increase in crime.

“When they close the schools down, the neighborhood starts to deteriorate. When the neighborhood starts to deteriorate, the blight and the crime comes in,” Moses said.

Across the nation, Senate offices have been swamped with calls, emails and letters criticizing Trump’s pick on education. Despite the pushback, DeVos is likely to be confirmed by the full Senate. She only needs Republican support, and the GOP controls the U.S. Senate 52 to 48.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Sen. Alexander’s remarks Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.