Education, News, Trump Administration

Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers should return to their classrooms

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers should return to their classrooms.

According to a Washington Post report Monday, the nation’s top public school official is taking aim at teachers in Oklahoma, who are protesting paltry public education funding.

Educators in several conservative states, including Oklahoma, are clamoring for better pay and better school funding, walking out of classrooms. But DeVos says the protests should not impact classrooms.

From The Washington Post:

“I think about the kids,” DeVos said Thursday, according to The Dallas Morning News. She had been touring a middle school and meeting with leaders of an anti-violence initiative in Dallas. “I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

Her spokeswoman did not return a request for additional comment.

Tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers converged on the state Capitol last week, demanding more money for the state’s schools, which have endured some of the steepest spending cuts in the nation. While the protest began over teacher pay, educators have shifted their emphasis, pressing lawmakers to invest more in classrooms and saying their walkout is in the name of students who are not getting the resources they need to learn.

Children in many districts — including the state’s two largest — have been out of the classroom for five days, and many schools are expected to remain closed this week as teachers continue their fight. Churches, community organizations and even the Oklahoma City Zoo have stepped up to provide childcare and to make sure children who rely on schools for meals get food.

The revolt in Oklahoma is part of a wave of teacher protests sweeping the country inspired by a successful teacher walkout in West Virginia. There, teachers pressed the state into giving them a 5 percent raise after shutting down schools for nine days. This month, teachers in Kentucky briefly shut some school districts as they protested pension reforms. Teachers in Arizona, where school funding has dropped steeply, are threatening to walk out unless the state restores funding and gives them a raise.

DeVos also weighed in during the West Virginia teacher walkout as it stretched on in February.

“It¹s now day 4 of #WVTeacherStrike. Whether you believe good teachers deserve better pay – I do – and/or states should be fiscally responsible – I do – we should all agree kids should not suffer for adult squabbles,” she wrote on Twitter. “But kids are directly harmed when they are barred from going to school to learn. So I hope both sides in WV come to the table to negotiate a swift resolution and get students back in their schools.”

Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma spends nearly 30 percent less on schools than it did a decade ago. School buildings are crumbling in many parts of the state, textbooks are outdated and tattered, and about 20 percent of districts have moved to four-day school weeks. Oklahoma teacher salaries ranked 49th in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Association, a leading teachers union.

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Commentary, Defending Democracy, Trump Administration

North Carolinian featured on list of Trump’s 10 most extreme judicial nominees

Thomas Farr

The good people at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have produced a list of the “Top Ten Most Extreme Judicial Nominees Pending in the Senate” and, not surprisingly, North Carolina’s Thomas Farr is featured.

As readers will recall, Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, decried Farr’s nomination last year as “repugnant” and “the culmination of a white supremacist political machine.” More recently, advocates at Democracy North Carolina put it this way:

“…Farr is famous for defending GOP mailers aimed at intimidating Black voters during Jesse Helms’ 1992 campaign. He is now the chief attorney for the NC Republican’s effort to disenfranchise voters of color, students, and the poor. Farr’s nomination is especially insulting because it’s for the long-vacant seat on the Eastern NC District Court that was denied to two highly-qualified African-American female nominees who Sen. Burr blocked from receiving a hearing.”

Here’s the full Leadership Conference list:

Kyle Duncan, nominated to the 5th Circuit (Louisiana seat)
Conservative movement lawyer who defended North Carolina’s monster voter suppression law (with Thomas Farr), fought against marriage equality and transgender rights, opposed DAPA and DACA, represented Hobby Lobby in its fight to deny working women access to contraceptive coverage, and worked to limit the rights of people charged with crimes.
Michael Brennan, nominated to the 7th Circuit (Wisconsin seat)
Served as chair of Governor Scott Walker’s judicial selection commission for state judges and recommended individuals who had made extreme and hateful anti-LGBTQ comments. Possesses a far-right judicial philosophy and does not respect stare decisis. Nominated over the objection of home-state Senator Baldwin.
Thomas Farr, nominated to the Eastern District of North Carolina
Defended North Carolina’s 2013 monster voter suppression law (with Kyle Duncan), represented Jesse Helms’ 1990 Senate campaign – which was notorious for suppressing the vote in Black communities – and represented corporations seeking to undermine workers’ rights and protections.
Howard Nielson, nominated to the District of Utah
Attempted to justify the use of torture and participated in politicized hiring at the George W. Bush Justice Department. Fought against marriage equality and sought to have a gay judge removed from the case. Challenged the legality of the Affordable Care Act and affirmative action. Hostile to reproductive rights and one of the NRA’s go-to attorneys. Read more
Education, News, Trump Administration

Report: In red, right-to-work states, teachers are rising up

We might have seen this coming, given last year’s report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In that report, researchers laid out how 29 states, including North Carolina, continued to fund their public education systems below pre-recession levels.

Now, with teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia rallying over educator pay, left-leaning ThinkProgress says the states in question have more in common than the fact that they tend to vote for Republicans like President Donald Trump. They’re all so-called “right to work states,” meaning employers cannot require that workers join a labor union or pay dues.

From ThinkProgress, which is a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund:

Whether teachers prefer to call them walkouts, work stoppages, or strikes, all of these states have a number of things in common. Yes, these states all went toDonald Trump in the presidential election — something many journalists and pundits have focused on.

But more importantly, they are also all states with right-to-work laws who have cut public services.

All of these teachers are organizing in similar ways. The strikes’ message goes beyond the teaching profession and extends to better salaries for other state employees and funding for public education as a whole. Teachers also aren’t being entirely led by their unions in the strikes, and they’re working with their school districts, nonprofits, and other state employees to ensure that they have as much public support as possible.

The chronic underfunding of education, sustained tax cuts, and right-to-work laws have created this environment, bringing the fight for education and labor rights to a boiling point in all of these states.

In many of the states where teachers are striking or considering taking action, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession.

This chronic underfunding hit the majority of states. A 2017 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report shows that in 2015, 29 states provided less education funding per pupil than in 2008. In 19 states, local funding also decreased from 2008 to 2015. In states where local funding increased during that period, it still didn’t make up for state cuts.

Most of the states now protesting are the ones that experienced the worst cuts. That includes Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers are currently striking. New Jersey, where there was a one-day strike in Jersey City last month, also had their education funding per pupil drop during that time period.

It also includes, Arizona — where we could see teachers take action next. Teachers in Arizona are discussing the possibility of a strike. Although Texas teachers may not strike, they have been unhappy with education funding in the state for a long time and anger is “bubbling beneath the surface,” Louis Malfaro, the head of Texas American Federation of Teachers, told Austin American-Statesman. In Florida, the teachers union has discouraged striking, but some teachers are still interested in a strike.

The cuts to education spending are hurting students’ quality of education and teachers’ quality of life. Oklahoma teachers have posted photos of old books that are falling apart and have panhandled for school supplies. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky say they are taking on second jobs and that they have considered leaving their states.

All these strikes are public backlash to years of Republican-led efforts to push for more tax cuts, which has squeezed funding for education.

West Virginia’s tax cuts began more than a decade ago. The states reduced its corporate net income tax and got rid of a corporate charter tax and alternative minimum tax — to name just a few of the cuts — and ultimately lost $425 million in state revenue each year since 2007.

Oklahoma has offered tax breaks to oil companies that diminished revenue from 2008 to 2014, according to WTOP, and led to a 24 percent reduction in per pupil funding over that time period. Twenty percent of Oklahoma school districts are open for only four days a week to cut down on costs. As Kentucky teachers demanded more education funding, state lawmakers considered a proposal that would cut income taxes and result in $114 million less revenue for the state. That legislation — which will result in higher taxes for most residents while corporations and the wealthy pay less — passed the legislature and is heading to the governor’s desk. It’s unclear if Gov. Matt Bevin (R) will sign it.

Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country.

“A lot of our students don’t come to school ready to learn math and to read. They come to school and they’re hungry,” Laura Hartke, a teacher at Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, told ThinkProgress when Kentucky teachers went to the state capital on Monday. “They may have been abused. The programs and things that they want to cut for these children are detrimental to their education. They need more than just a teacher. They need support systems and those are the things that they’re cutting.”

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Education, News, Trump Administration

Education Week: Betsy DeVos bickers with Congress over spending, school choice

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Given the one-party rule in the nation’s capital these days, one might have expected a smooth roll-out of top priorities for Betsy DeVos, the country’s controversial education secretary under President Donald Trump.

But things are, quite clearly, more complicated than that—particularly when it comes to DeVos’ relationship with federal lawmakers in her own party, as Education Week explained in a new report Monday.

It’s been a rough month for DeVos, a wealthy, GOP booster whose uncomfortable interview with “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, broadcast two weeks ago, has become fresh fodder for Trump and DeVos’ harshest critics. 

Now it’s clear that the education secretary—who’s reportedly “alarmed” officials in the White House with her performance on the CBS news program—is struggling to implement her vision on Capitol Hill.

Of course, according to the report, such tension isn’t unheard of when it comes to the nation’s top K-12 policymakers.

Read on from Education Week:

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is frustrated with Congress these days. And it appears the feeling is mutual.

But she’s hardly the first education secretary to clash with lawmakers in her own party,over the department’s budget, policy direction, and more.

“I don’t see this being unique to Betsy as a person,” said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has received donations from DeVos and her family. “This seems to be the institutional clashes we’ve seen for a while.”

DeVos, who lead the American Federation for Children before becoming secretary, has spent her career doling out millions in campaign donations, mostly to GOP candidates, and many of them members of Congress. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from largely rejecting her proposals,including cuts to the agency’s bottom-line, a new private school choice program, and new federal resources for public school choice.

Congress—which is controlled by Republicans—also put language in the recently enacted spending bill that would block DeVos from moving forward on a reorganization of the department’s budget office, which arguably interacts with Capitol Hill more than any other arm of the department.

What’s more, during a recent budget hearing, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees K-12 spending, said he doesn’t understand why DeVos reupped her ask for choice programs that Congress was already poised to nix.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the chairman of the House appropriations committee, chided DeVos about the lack of coordination and communication between House staff and her department—a problem he said he’s had with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ staff as well.

Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for using research in policy and practice and a one-time aide to former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said it’s not a big surprise that Republicans in Congress weren’t taken with DeVos’ budget pitches.

Both Cole and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who oversees education appropriations in the Senate, represent relatively rural states where school choice often doesn’t get the traction it does elsewhere.

“I’m sure they are very discouraged,” McLaughlin said of DeVos and her staff. “Whether they’re more discouraged than any other year, I don’t know.”

But Frelinghuysen’s remarks to DeVos were more striking, McLaughlin said: “That clearly looked like it had some backstory to it.”

One Republican source noted that, as a major GOP donor, DeVos had long-standing relationships with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. The source is surprised that those lawmakers haven’t done more to defend her.

To be sure, GOP lawmakers have stepped in to support her. For example, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., defended the secretary against Democratic attacks at last week’s hearing, saying he supported her move to consider changes to Obama-era discipline guidance.

DeVos, too, hasn’t exactly been brimming with praise for the Hill.

“Clearly if I could snap my fingers and things would happen with that body up there, there’s lots of things that I would tell them to do,” she said in an interview with four reporters back in February. “Not only around choice. Lots of things.”

One of her biggest complaints: The Senate has been achingly slow to confirm the president’s nominees for key positions at the department.

“It really has been going on much too long. [There’s] a very, very high level of frustration around that,” she said. “We have many qualified, capable individuals waiting to come and contribute here, and they’re just messing around at that building on the Hill.”

Education, News, Trump Administration

Betsy DeVos under fire following rocky interview with “60 Minutes”

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

The United States’ top public school official is under fire this week after a brutally icy interview that aired over the weekend on national television.

As CNN reports today, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “stumbled her way through a tense interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night, struggling to answer some basic questions about schools in her home state of Michigan and admitting that she does not ‘intentionally’ visit underperforming schools.

From CNN:

“60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl asked DeVos if in Michigan, students who can’t afford to leave public schools are thriving, as the secretary cites.
“Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” Stahl asked.
“I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos said, noting that “there are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well.”
 But Stahl notes that the secretary’s “argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where (she) had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.”
DeVos responded: “I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”
“Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it,” she continued, admitting that she does not “intentionally (visit) schools that are underperforming.”
Stahl suggested she should visit those schools to understand what they’re doing. DeVos responded, “Maybe I should.”
White House officials watched the interview, along with media appearances DeVos made on Monday morning, with dismay, two sources familiar with their reaction told CNN. The White House did not respond to a request for an official comment regarding DeVos’ performances, and it wasn’t immediately clear what President Donald Trump’s reaction was.
The secretary also argued that the federal government has “invested billions and billions and billions of dollars … and we have seen zero results” in public education.
“But that really isn’t true,” Stahl argued, noting that test scores have gone up over the last 25 years.
DeVos said the United States has comparatively stagnated with test scores, pivoting again to school choice as the solution.
“What can be done about that is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids,” DeVos said. “Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children.”
DeVos’ passion for school and community choice also transferred into how she views school safety.
The secretary said allowing teachers to have guns in schools “should be an option for states and communities to consider,” later reconciling that she “couldn’t ever imagine” her own first-grade teacher brandishing a weapon in the classroom.
While DeVos maintained that addressing gun violence in schools is an urgent matter, noting that she’s heading up a task force to observe what states are doing to protect students, Stahl balked, saying “this sounds like talking instead of acting.”
DeVos also identified individual circumstances as to why she’s considering repealing Obama-era guidance that outlines “how to identify, avoid and remedy discriminatory discipline.”
“Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids,” Devos said, to which Stahl replied, “Well, no … it’s not.”
DeVos continued, “It does come down to individual kids. And — often comes down to — I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.”
DeVos also said that “one sexual assault is one too many, but “one falsely accused individual is one too many.”
Asked if the two were the same, DeVos remarked, “I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

This weekend’s interview marks another rocky moment for DeVos, a longtime GOP booster and school choice advocate chosen by President Donald Trump last year to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

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