February 4, 2017 -- At a meeting of the North Shore Board of Education on January 26, Greg Perles, the President of the North Shore Schools Federated Employees, the organization that represents the district’s teachers, read to the seven trustees a letter requesting that they, as a board, take a public stand against President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education. After discussing the issue for about thirty minutes, the request was denied with the board defeating a motion made by Trustee Joanna Commander to schedule a special public meeting to draft a letter to elected officials expressing opposition to Ms. DeVos’ Senate confirmation.
Many districts across New York State had already taken such action, with the nine members of the neighboring Syosset School District Board of Education the previous evening directing the Superintendent there to draft such a letter. Click here for Syosset letter.
In his remarks at the North Shore meeting, Mr. Perles, while acknowledging that there might be divisions within the community over this past November’s presidential election, urged the board to not be tempted by the easy path of remaining neutral in such a climate, asserting that Ms. Devos “was categorically unfit” to be the nation’s top education official.
“You are stewards of a public school district,” Mr. Perles said, reading from the letter he had e-mail to the board earlier in the day. “Betsy Devos has dedicated her life and her fortune to undermining public education.”
The teacher union president questioned Ms. Devos’ competence to serve as Education Secretary, and pointed out that her understanding of the issues facing public education are woefully limited.
“You have engaged - through a series of conversations, committees and the issuance of a white paper on assessment - the controversies surrounding testing, growth and proficiency. Betsy DeVos does not know what those words mean.”
As for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that has been in place for decades and that entitles children with disabilities to receive appropriate special education services, Mr. Perles pointed out that in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee, Ms. DeVos “did not know that IDEA exists.”
This district, he continued, has tried to “make our schools and children safe.” Ms. DeVos, he said, “is open to the proliferation of guns in school.”
At her confirmation hearing last month, in defense of her position on guns, the nominee cited a school in Wyoming that might want to arm itself to protect children from grizzly bears.
Ms. DeVos, Mr. Perles continued, has no education degree, never worked in a public school, nor did she or her children ever attend public schools.
The nominee has, however, been a champion of charter schools, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the charter school movement and politicians who support the effort to divert public tax dollars to the often for-profit entities that do not have to adhere to the same accountability standards that traditional public schools do for both student performance and how money is spent.
During the board discussion, President Trustee Labatte stated that the board had also received letters from the community regarding the DeVos nomination.
Trustee Marianne Russo said that while she considered herself a registered Democrat, she believed the Democratic administrations of President Barack Obama and Governor Andrew Cuomo had hurt public education with more standardized testing that was initially used to identify students in need of support but has instead been used to evaluate teachers. As for charter schools, she explained that she understood why many people in a “high functioning district” like North Shore opposed them, but that she believed in less well funded and lower performing districts they provided another option to parents.
Additionally, she asked whether Ms. DeVos would allow school districts more freedom. “Do we know anything about if this candidate would return local control to us?” she asked.
“There’s no evidence she believes in the local control that we believe in," replied Trustee Sara Jones. “She only refers to public schools as failing government schools. She wants parents not communities to have control of all education tax dollars for private schools, charter schools, religious schools."
She continued that the data shows that Detroit’s charter schools have a lower level of achievement than its public schools.
Trustee Russo replied that she has read that there is disagreement over the research. The issue for her, she continued, is whether the district would get more local control with someone like DeVos in that position.
Schools Superintendent Edward Melnick said that he had spoken to Long Island's Board of Regents representative Roger Tilles, who worked in Michigan when Ms. DeVos had been active there, and that he had said, "she’s the worst thing that could happen to public education.”
He continued that Regent Tilles had said that Ms. DeVos “sought to wrestle away local control,” and supported more centralization.
“She would like to move federal funding away from states that do not want to move in the charter school direction,” he explained.
Trustee Labatte said that her concerns were not as much about North Shore as they were in other areas where “the achievement gap is going to get larger and larger.”
“It’s taking money from public schools for vouchers to go to public and private schools.” The problem with that, she continued, is that it is not enough money to cover the full tuition, so that only those with a certain degree of wealth would be able to benefit.
“You still have only certain people having access,” she said. “You’re taking money away from the public schools while providing access [to private schools] for only a small amount of people.. . . It’s devastating to people who are already struggling.”
Trustee Russo responded that the only way to help schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged children is to give them more funding, but that people do not want to pay higher taxes. Parents who are “trapped,” in troubled school systems, she explained, see charter schools as a viable option. “People in our community who look at that and who do not want to pay for these economically disadvantaged areas, . . . see it as alternative for those that are struggling.”
“When you send out a letter,” she continued, “you will have a backlash because there are people in this community who support charter schools.” Current reforms, she continued, “have done nothing to narrow the achievement gap.”
Trustee David Ludmar, expressing that he felt very conflicted regarding whether the board should make a statement, explained that he has made his “voice heard” as an individual and did not think Ms. Devos was qualified for the position, but wondered what taking a stand on principle would accomplish.
“The question to me comes down to the pragmatic value of making this kind of statement,” he said, with both of New York’s Senators already on record opposing Ms. DeVos. “The effect on a Senator in another state of what we do here is extremely minimal.”
Although Mr. Ludmar said that he saw the reforms Ms. DeVos supported as "a fundamental threat to our school district,” and "counter to the democratic nature of the American school system which is extremely important for the future of our country," he explained that he believed it was important not to be "sidetracked by a separate political argument, when we are going to have a minimal impact on change.”
Trustee Ludmar said he would consider signing such a letter if the other members of the board did so, and that that he would continue to give the issue further thought.
Trustee Herman Berliner said that he was a “strong believer in public education,” and that “it is the foundation of our democracy,” but that he would have to abstain on any vote regarding Ms. DeVos, since as Provost at Hofstra, he did not want to undermine any effort by the university to host future presidential debates, as it has in the past three election cycles. “I have to be neutral,” he said.
Trustee Russo said she believed such a statement could divide the community and questioned whether there was enough time to take action before the Senate vote, since it is against board policy to take action on a "new business" item.
Trustee Jones said that she believed it was “important for school boards to stand up for public education,” but that she had logistical concerns with regard to getting a statement written by the 31st when the confirmation vote was orginally scheduled to take place.
“We each have our own voice,” said Trustee Labatte, who urged community members to press their friends and family members in other states to write their Senators. She said that she had done so.
Trustee Joanna Commander, asserting that the trustees were "the stewards of public education in this community,” then made a motion to schedule a meeting to consider writing a letter prior to January 31, the date when a Senate vote on the nomination was expected to have taken place.
Trustees Lara Gonzalez, Jones, and Commander voted in favor of the motion, while Trustees Berliner, Labatte, Ludmar, and Russo voted “no.”
Trustee Ludmar then asked Mr. Perles if the Teacher’s Union had issued a statement. The Union President responded that NYSUT, the state-wide organization representing k-12 educators, had done so.
Mr. Ludmar then proposed that the Board make a statement in support of the teachers’ opposition to DeVos’ confirmation. “We don’t want the teachers to feel that they are feeling strongly about this and we’re saying, ‘eh, it’s not for us.'”
The trustees went back and forth for several minutes discussing procedural issues and whether they were voting on something different than what they had just voted on.
“What point are we making if it’s a 4 to 3 vote [against the DeVos nomination]” said Trustee Berliner, asserting that it could undermine any message the board was trying to send.
“We are in agreement that she’s not the best candidate,” added Trustee Russo.
Soon thereafter the meeting adjourned.
On February 7, the Senate plus VP Mike Pence voted 51-50 to confirm Ms. Devos' appointment.
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