the big shift

Cory Booker vs. Cory Booker: Two videos to understand how the politics of education are being reshaped in the Trump era

President Donald Trump hasn’t yet changed the policy of education in America. But two speeches by the same man — one last night and one in May — show how his election is changing the politics.

In one, speaking late last night on the Senate floor, Cory Booker, a Democrat senator from New Jersey, made an emotional case for why he will not support Betsy DeVos’s nomination as secretary of education. His opposition centered around a concern that DeVos would not protect students’ civil rights.

Booker, the former mayor of Newark, invoked the story of Ruby Bridges, who desegregated an all-white public school in New Orleans. “I feel I owe her a duty … not to vote on someone who has been silent on the issues that are so critical to this country being who we say we are,” he said.

Part of Booker’s remarks:

In the other speech, which Booker delivered last May, Booker praised DeVos’s nonprofit education advocacy organization as a champion of civil rights. By promoting school choice through charter schools and vouchers, the organization was helping to carry out the next and “final” phase of the civil rights movement, Booker said.

He made the speech at the annual gathering for the organization DeVos founded in 2010 and led until shortly after her nomination, the American Federation for Children. “The mission of this organization is aligned with the mission of our nation,” he said.

Here are those remarks:

Booker’s turnaround on DeVos reflects changes afoot in the politics of education. His speech last night on the Senate floor might have been typical in the 1980s or 1990s: A Democrat opposing a Republican’s education position on the grounds that it does not support the civil rights of vulnerable populations.

But in the last 25 years, a group of Democrats and Republicans came together around an education agenda that was both explicitly pro-civil rights — traditionally Democratic terrain — and explicitly pro-market-style reform, like charter schools and, for some, vouchers — traditionally Republican terrain.

In his career, Booker has been a more extreme example of Democrats embracing issues that are traditionally third rails for their party. He not only actively supports charter schools, whose growth teachers unions oppose, but has been an enthusiastic proponent of publicly funded private school vouchers. That’s why he was able to say, in his remarks at the American Federation for Children event, that he has been involved with the group for 10 years. Booker’s argument, like that of other Democrats who support vouchers, is that poor children and children of color need escape valves from struggling public schools.

Booker isn’t alone. Kevin Chavous, an education activist, helped to found a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which rose to encourage Democrats to support school choice and other education policies they have traditionally opposed. Chavous also spoke at DeVos’s organization’s event in May and serves as a board member for the organization. But today, Democrats for Education Reform has come out aggressively opposing DeVos.

Booker did not mention vouchers or charter schools, but instead focused on concerns about the education department’s Office of Civil Rights, which he said he fears will be diluted under DeVos. The omission points to an important point: Behind the change in the education coalition is a shift in politics, not education policy positions. In the wake of Trump’s election, other issues — including Trump’s stance on immigration, LGBTQ communities, and women’s issues — are driving a wedge between Democrats and Republicans who previously could find common ground on education issues.

Writing on Facebook last night, Derrell Bradford, an education activist who supports school vouchers, noted the shift in Booker’s remarks. “It’s pretty safe to say that, regardless of the outcome, tomorrow there won’t be an ed reform ‘left’ as we know it anymore,” Bradford wrote. “Maybe a good thing. Maybe a bad thing. Either way, it’s a thing.”

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.