EDUCATION
01/10/2017 03:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 10, 2017

Democrats Form Congressional Caucus To Support Public Education

The members of Congress say Trump's pick for education secretary is a threat to schools.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Members of Congress, spurred by the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, have formed a caucus to support public education.

Members of Congress have formed a new caucus to support the goals of public education under Donald Trump’s presidency. Although the caucus has been in the works for over a year, Trump’s election and his nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary has given the group heightened urgency, according to those involved with the effort.

Several Democratic members of Congress announced the effort alongside the presidents of the nation’s two largest teachers unions at a press conference on Tuesday.

Members expressed fear that public education will be under attack if DeVos is confirmed. Although DeVos’ Senate confirmation hearing was originally scheduled for Wednesday, it was pushed back to next week “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule,” according to a statement from the leaders of the Senate education committee. The move comes after Democrats called on the Senate to delay the hearing until an Office of Government Ethics review of DeVos is complete. 

DeVos did not attend public schools as a child and did not send her children to public schools. She has never been employed by a public school. Critics of DeVos say her strong advocacy for school voucher programs and other alternatives to traditional public schools show that she wants to dismantle the public education system. School voucher programs use taxpayer money to send children to private schools. 

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who spent over two decades as a public school teacher and is part of the caucus, said at the press conference that DeVos’ lack of experience gives her an “incredibly narrow view of public education in America.”

“She will insert a profit motive into children’s education that will cripple our public schools and punish the millions of students who attend them everyday,” Takano said. “Betsy DeVos will create a race to the bottom line.”

Indeed, DeVos has been heavily involved in the expansion of Michigan’s charter schools. Michigan has more for-profit charter schools than any other state. 

Another caucus member, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), said he has never worked as a teacher, but his years in the Wisconsin Legislature showed him the havoc school choice can wreak on children. 

“I’ve watched this experiment firsthand,” Pocan told The Huffington Post. “I’ve watched dollars be thrown away with no results ― in fact negative results.” 

Takano said he has heard from concerned constituents, teachers and former students regarding DeVos. He said he is especially concerned that DeVos won’t act to support the nation’s LBGTQ students and other vulnerable children. Indeed, DeVos’ foundation has donated heavily to anti-gay groups. Takano called her work in that area “a huge disqualifying point.”

“The public education caucus in the congress is more important than ever, now that we have a nominee for secretary of education who I believe is hell-bent on dismantling public education,” Takano told The Huffington Post. “I don’t have confidence Betsy DeVos has the background or history or commitment to make sure every students’ rights are enforced.” 

So far, in addition to Pocan and Takano, the caucus includes Democratic Reps. Alma Adams (N.C.), Suzanne Bonamici (Ore.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Mark DeSaulnier (Calif.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Jared Polis (Colo.), Jamie Raskin (Md.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.). The group hopes to attract more members in the upcoming days.

In recent days, key Republican players have expressed support for DeVos, including the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a group of 20 Republican governors

Ed Patru, spokesman for the group Friends of Betsy DeVos, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the education secretary pick does support public education:

“Every member of the house public education caucus understands that funding for public schools occurs at the local level and Washington couldn’t get rid of public education even if it wanted to. Having said that, Betsy is a supporter of public education. Like the majority of Americans, she believes public schools and schools of choice can coexist and that together they strengthen education.”

This post has been updated with a statement from Patru.

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Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. Tips?Email: Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

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