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LI teachers rally against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education

Friday, January 20, 2017

This article by Scott Eidler and Joie Tyrrell originally appeared in Newsday.

About 80 Long Island teachers and labor activists rallied Thursday in Bay Shore against Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for education secretary.

“We can’t bear DeVos,” read one sign, a reference to DeVos’ comments Tuesday during her Senate confirmation hearing, when she said it is “best left to locales and states” to decide if guns should be allowed in schools and cited the threat of grizzly bears in Wyoming.

Her response was to a question from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), whose district includes Sandy Hook, the site of the 2012 elementary school shooting in which 20 children and six staffers were shot and killed by Adam Lanza. Murphy had asked DeVos if she believes guns have “any place in and around schools.”

At Thursday’s demonstration, Bay Shore Middle School teacher Liz Galarza said, “That is absolutely insane. Safety of public schools should be top priority. There should never, for any reason, be weapons in a school for children.”

DeVos’ nomination to head the U.S. Department of Education has brought strong objections from teacher unions and many supporters of public schools.

The Michigan billionaire and Republican megadonor has been criticized as a longtime advocate for charter schools and private-school voucher programs. Opponents also have noted that she has no experience with public schools.

Thursday’s rally was part of similar efforts across the country in what was called “A National Day of Action,” organized by the activist Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and supported by New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teacher union.

Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of NYSUT, encouraged the group assembled outside the office of the Bay Shore Classroom Teachers Association to continue to raise their voices. “We will be able to push back this agenda,” he told supporters.

DeVos has pledged to oversee “transformational change” in education. Trump called her “a brilliant and passionate education advocate” in a November statement announcing her selection.

Trump, in the campaign, proposed using $20 billion in existing federal funds to establish a federal block grant program available to the states, for 11 million students “living in absolute poverty.”

Advocates for more school choice have expressed hope that with DeVos in charge, there would be fewer restrictions on states’ ability to secure funding.

But Joanne Long Merrill, a reading specialist in the Bay Shore district, weighed in against DeVos at Thursday’s event, saying, “enough with the privatization of our public education.”

Robert Claps, president of the Amityville Teachers Association, said he is worried that school-choice policies could result in less funding for public schools. If funding for his district is diverted to vouchers for charter or private schools, he said, “we’re really going to be in trouble.”

Mike Krieger, a social studies teacher and president of the Bay Shore Classroom Teachers Association, said the rally and other efforts against DeVos represent “the fight for the soul of American public education. Together, we must stand up and say: ‘Educational justice is social justice for educators, working families, the labor movement, women, and, of course, our children.’ ”

Some school boards on Long Island have expressed opposition to DeVos.The Sachem school board on Wednesday night publicly opposed her appointment, and in a letter to Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote that “the educational resume of Ms. DeVos is focused on funding and supporting for-profit charter schools, the expansion of voucher programs and school choice, all of which divert critical funding away from public schools.”

In December, the Patchogue-Medford school board approved a resolution opposing her confirmation.