Betsy DeVos

Randi Weingarten promises to ‘educate’ Betsy DeVos as AFT kicks off campaign against Trump agenda

PHOTO: Allie Gross
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten talks to students in a math class for English language learners at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan.

At Edsel Ford High School Tuesday morning, students took turns sharing their goals for the semester. Sixteen-year-old Kamal Mohamad wants to get better grades. His classmate Almjd Alghaithi wants to finish all of his math assignments.

Nodding along was Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers who spent the morning at the Dearborn, Michigan school to advance a goal of her own: getting the Trump administration to redirect public funding from cracking down on immigration to supporting public schools.

She was there to kick off a campaign called Building Schools, Not Walls, just two days before she will visit schools with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos has faced criticism for her focus on school choice — especially private-school vouchers — and her lack of personal experience with public schools.

“I see the secretary of education as a student,” Weingarten told Chalkbeat. “We’re educators — we have an abiding belief that people are educable, including secretaries of education.”

“That’s why we are making the effort, despite lots of people wondering, given her track record, why we’d even bother.”

Weingarten chose Ohio’s Van Wert City Schools, a small district in northwest Ohio, about an hour and a half away from Toledo, for that joint visit. It’s in “Trump country,” she said. “It’s schools that do project based learning, have grappled with rural poverty, schools that engage in children’s well-being, and that’s why we wanted her to see it.”

PHOTO: Allie Gross
AFT President Randi Weingarten, Rep. Debbie Dingell, and members of Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan.

The tour will coincide with the new, two-week campaign announced at Edsel Ford. The initiative, led by the AFT and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, aims to encourage President Trump and DeVos to rethink their plans for the national budget and education, pushing for more funding for schools, less money for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and a focus on providing a high-quality, inclusive education for all students. The group will release a report later this month explaining why those shifts are better for the country.

The focus on openness and diversity has particular resonance in Dearborn, where nearly two-thirds of the district’s public school students are Arab-American.

“This is the model of what public education in America need to achieve,” Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who grew up in Dearborn, said during the press conference, nodding toward Edsel Ford Principal Scott Casebolt, who is credited with helping turn the once-struggling district around.

The congresswoman also pointed out the obligation Americans had to make sure all students were not only educated but felt safe.

“When parents, who are Americans, they have lived here two or three generations, they and their children have American passports, and the kids say to me ‘I’m scared, they’re going to knock my door at 2 a.m. and deport our whole family,’” she said. “This is what the kids in this community are living with and scared about every single day.”


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.