‘Watchdogs’ barking mad about DeVos being Education chief

Kids and parents from the “Public School Watchdogs” rallied outside the offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand in East Midtown and some also went inside to meet with the senators’ staff. Photos by Julie Hassett Sutton

BY AMY RUSSO | Despite this week’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Department of Education secretary, educators, students and parents across New York City rallied against the contentious pick that they see as a threat to public education.

In the week before the final vote, school kids across the city and their parents sent a slew of letters to U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, urging them to stop DeVos, eventually meeting with staffers of both senators to voice their concerns.

Lizzie Scott, a Brooklyn parent who helped organize the “Public School Watchdogs” letter-writing campaign, was motivated to take a stand against DeVos.

“I became increasingly alarmed by her record of undermining public schools in Michigan,” Scott said, “and by comments she had made to the effect that traditional public schools were outdated and should be replaced by things like homeschooling, online schools and religious and charter schools. She also has hostility to public schools, to L.G.B.T. students, to special-needs students, to accountability, to financial oversight.”

Scott then collected signatures from other parents on her letters, contacted her school’s P.T.A. Action Committee and spread the word through Facebook. The result was a grassroots campaign and an initial round of 1,500 letters from more than six schools. Upon delivering these to the senators who had yet to take a position on DeVos, Scott and other parents pushed for more letters, delivering a second round of around 2,000 from more than 25 schools, both charter and public. Finally, students became involved and circulated letters of their own. Among local schools involved were the West Village’s P.S. 3, as well as in the East Village, The Earth School, East Village Community School and Tompkins Square Middle School.

The “Watchdogs” protesting outside Schumer and Gillibrand’s offices.

Marie Edesess, a school parent who was present during the meetings between students and staffers of Gillibrand, said the kids were well-informed on the debates surrounding DeVos’s nomination and had watched the hearings. Among their concerns were guns in schools and the Individualized Education Program, or I.E.P., a document for special-education students defining their needs, services to be provided and a process by which progress is evaluated.

Summing up her frustration with DeVos, Edesses said, “It’s that she has horrible policies, and underneath it she has no experience, skills or competency in the area. The public education system requires a national network of people to defend it,” she added.

Marisa Kaufman, a spokesperson for Schumer, said the office was happy to arrange the meeting with students and their parents.

“From Day One, Senator Schumer made it very clear that he had major concerns with at least eight of the nominees in what he termed, the ‘swamp cabinet’ of billionaires and bankers,” she said. “He fought off the Republican effort to bum rush this group through the Senate in one fell swoop, and instead forced a series of hearings to more fully question them and examine their records and their conflicts of interest.”

Kaufman also said the senator will oppose any nominees “who don’t sufficiently answer deep concerns about some of the president’s more offensive and potentially illegal executive orders.”

Also a staunch opponent of DeVos, Gillibrand voted against the confirmation and spoke out against it on the Senate floor last Friday.

“Students, parents and teachers deserve an Education secretary whose commitment to public education and safe schools will not waver,” Gillibrand told her Senate colleagues. “If public education fails, America fails — and I do not believe Mrs. DeVos shares my commitment to a strong public education system.”

DeVos has drawn widespread criticism for her billionaire status and utter lack of education experience, as well as her support for charters and the hotly debated voucher system through which states may fund private school tuition for certain students who do not wish to attend public schools. She has also been under fire for promoting the expansion of the charter school system in Michigan.

Although DeVos’s nomination has been approved despite serious pushback from Democrats, New York City locals say they will keep advocating in defense of public education, no matter what.