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Alexander to Local School Boards: Trump and DeVos ‘Believe in You’

Image via Shutterstock, Indiana Governor Mike Pence

WASHINGTON – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told members of school boards that President Trump and Betsy DeVos, the likely next education secretary, want to empower local school administrators to make their “own decisions” and do not support “a national school board.”

“We don’t want a national school board. We want a local school board,” Alexander said to applause from the audience at the National School Boards Association conference on Monday. “You have a chance to make a change, and I would respectfully suggest that is one thing that’s different from the previous administration and the new administration. You will have a president and an Education secretary who do not believe in a national school board – they believe in you. They want you to make your own decisions.”

Alexander, former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, told the audience the new Department of Education is going to say “yes” to local school boards’ “innovation” and ideas regarding how to fix a public school as well as rate a school’s performance.

“Test-based accountability – you decide how to test. You decide what kind of a test and when they ought to be given and what the consequences are for the success or failure on the test,” Alexander said.

The committee vote to move forward the confirmation of DeVos is set for today. A group of about 40 demonstrators gathered outside of Alexander’s speech to protest the DeVos nomination.

Elizabeth Caldwell, a public-school teacher in Northern Virginia, criticized DeVos for saying that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left up to states even though it is a federal law.

“The fact she didn’t know that as an educator, let alone a special-education teacher, is very concerning,” she told PJM.

Stephanie Kasparek, a public-school teacher in Fairfax, Va., echoed Caldwell’s concerns.

“My No. 1 concern is that she has had no experience working in the public-school sector and yet she wanted to dismantle it and she’s worked her entire career to dismantle public education and give money to charter schools and vouchers,” she said. “Then when she talked about IDEA, the Disabilities Education Act, I have a lot of students who benefit from IDEA and to say that it is a state decision even though they are getting federal money, some states could be great with it and some states could not care about individuals’ disabilities and that’s not acceptable to me.”

Rachel Weatherly, who moved to Virginia from Tennessee, said DeVos lacks “any tangible experience” in public education.

“I don’t care if she went, personally, to public school, that’s not the issue, it’s just that she doesn’t know anything about public school,” she said. “She doesn’t actually have the qualifications to be hired as a school administrator. If she couldn’t be hired as a school administrator, why in the world would we put her in charge of the entire public education system?”

Jackie Lieberman of Washington, D.C., was “angry” that Chairman Alexander limited individual senators’ questioning to 5 minutes during the confirmation hearing.

“He basically doesn’t want the public to hear from Betsy DeVos because although senators could ask written questions, we the public don’t get to hear the answers to those questions, so that’s the main reason I am here,” she said, referring to the questions senators can submit in writing after the confirmation hearing.

Jeff Coupe of Washington, D.C., said DeVos supports school choice even where it “doesn’t make sense.” He argued that using vouchers for parochial education goes “against the grain” of bringing Americans together and ensuring “equity” in education.

“My question for DeVos is, maybe this works for Christian schools but do vouchers work for Islamic schools? Do they work Jewish schools? It’s not clear to me that her thinking goes that far,” he said.