Last week, Vice President Mike Pence had to break a tie vote among members of the Senate in order to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary. This historic outcome is emblematic of DeVos' supreme unpopularity, and is reflected in the millions of people all across the country who called and wrote their senators urging them to vote against her. Armed with facts about the billionaire's disdain for the public education system, lack of experience, and track record of "buying influence," parents of school-age children in particular were (and are) outraged and apprehensive about the future of American education. But even those without kids in school should know how to get involved in their local school communities in order to protect them moving forward.
Even if you don't know much about DeVos, you've probably heard about how she couldn't answer a basic question about proficiency versus growth in student testing, a common debate in the realm of eduction, during her confirmation hearing last month. You've seen the memes that spawned from the time she said she believes guns may have a place in schools in case of a grizzly bear attack. Then there's the fact that she donated nearly $1 million to the senators who ultimately voted for her confirmation. Maybe that's why they were willing to overlook the fact that educators in Michigan, where DeVos pumped money into the school choice voucher program she hopes to enact nationwide, are saying the program could destroy public schools.
But DeVos, despite all this and more, is now in a plum position to redefine education in the United States — from how it treats student with disabilities, students of color, and LGBT students, to potentially redirecting government money from public schools into private ones, which her dedication to school choice indicates she will try to do.
In light of DeVos' record and already-rocky Cabinet-tenure, here are some ways for community members to get involved in improving education for America's children, rather than tearing it down.
Run For A Spot On The School Board
Encouraging people distraught over the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency to run for some type of political office is a common refrain among activists. And getting onto a local school board gives everyday people the opportunity to fight for the children in their districts, learn what needs to be done to make sure they have quality experiences at school, and advocate for them at home.
Eastern Pennsylvania resident Shae Ashe decided to run for a spot on his local school board in direct response to DeVos' ascension to her new role. "A lot of people here in Norristown understand that, with the way we are struggling with funding, that we're one of the districts that's going to feel an immediate impact of DeVos and her push for vouchers and more charter schools," he recently told NPR.
Volunteer To Work With Students
Through the United Way, community members can get involved in school mentoring, reading, and tutoring programs all over the country — specifically, right in their hometowns. Although it may take some time to find a good match, volunteering directly with students in a way that will enrich their education, regardless of politics, is both rewarding and effective.
Write A Check — Or Two
On her first full day of education secretary, DeVos tweeted what appears to be a pretty innocent message: "Day 1 on the job is done, but we’re only getting started," she wrote. "Now where do I find the pencils? :)" But the tweet had some parents and educators fuming, because it seemed like a slap in the face from a woman who has never attended, worked in, or sent her own children to public school. Because, at public institutions, unlike many private ones, teachers and parents often cover the costs of classroom supplies — like pencils — themselves. DeVos' mission to divert federal funds into private and charter schools at the expense of public ones will only exacerbate this problem.
So, truly, reaching out to your local public school with cash or to donate everyday supplies could make a huge difference in elevating the quality of their education — you can talk to teachers directly to see what they need most. As DeVos' confirmation shows, this is more urgent now than ever.
You've probably seen the clip of DeVos, along with her entourage, retreating after attempting to enter a school in Washington, D.C., last week, as demonstrators chase after her yelling "shame!" and calling her out for donating so much money to the senators who confirmed her for her position. Of course, this by itself is unlikely to provoke a turnaround in DeVos' thinking, but having constituents constantly confronting her to speak out against her harmful plans for schools will force her to consider the children she could hurt. Just as progressives' vociferous and unrelenting defense of the Affordable Care Act has prompted Republicans to shift their rhetoric surrounding the law from "repeal" to "repair," speaking out can potentially alter DeVos' trajectory for the better, or at least make her rethink her stances a bit.
The effort to safeguard education will be a long and difficult one, but it works so much better when caring individuals team up to confront the challenge.