No other U.S. education secretary nominee was ever in danger of being rejected by the Senate — until Betsy DeVos. Teachers, education activists, teachers unions, and most especially, ordinary parents showed their outrage at her nomination with an unprecedented number of phone calls, letters, emails, and tweets to senators.
As a former teacher, education researcher, and (most importantly) mom to two young kids, I found the choice of Betsy DeVos to be disgraceful. My first reaction was disbelief, followed by anger and outrage. Her lack of knowledge about even the most basic points of education policy was on full display during her senate hearing. Her long-held contempt for public education is evidenced by previous statements. Her brand of education reform — funneling taxpayer money out of public schools into vouchers for private (and particularly religious) schools — has been shown to be disastrous in her home state of Michigan. She is a billionaire conservative activist who has fought against the same level of accountability for charter schools as we demand of public schools.
I could go on and on. (I didn’t even mention the grizzly bears yet.) Yet here we are: She’s now our education secretary.
So what can parents who are terrified by the idea of Betsy DeVos running our nation’s public schools do now?
One thing is for sure: Parents can’t retreat, demoralized and resigned to four years of dangerous leadership for our public schools. We can’t sit on the sidelines. There’s too much at stake, for all students, but particularly the most vulnerable, such as students with disabilities or students in disadvantaged schools. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos is not the end of the war; the battle to support public education has just begun.
“[Getting involved] can feel very overwhelming,” public school advocate Julie Borst told me. “But it’s not as intimidating as you might think, especially at the state level. Legislators love to hear directly from parents. Parents tend to not sugarcoat what’s happening in their schools. Legislators are used to hearing from lobby groups.”
Here are steps that we as parents can take to defend our country’s public schools:
1. Understand the issues.
Follow education bloggers and activists on social media and their blogs, and learn from the top educational advocates about the leading issues in education today. (Public education advocate and blogger Julie Borst has a great list on the sidebar of her blog.)
Attend local school board meetings to educate yourself on issues facing your school district.
2. Get involved locally.
Volunteer at your child’s school, and ask teachers what they need and what their concerns are (and then bring those concerns to your local, state, and national representatives). Join your school’s parent-teacher organization. If your school doesn’t have one, start one yourself, and invite local civic, church, and business leaders to hear from teachers and parents about educational needs in your community.
Run for school board. Look into organizations such as the nonpartisan She Should Run and Emerge America (for Democratic women), which help to inspire, prepare, connect with resources, and train women to run for elected office.
Talk to your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors who don’t have children in public schools about the importance of supporting public education. And then write letters to the editor of your local newspaper about local school challenges and triumphs.
Mentor and tutor local public school students.
Connect to other local grassroots campaigns that are fighting for standardized testing reform, through nonprofits such as FairTest, or start one for your own community.
Work to build alliances and coalitions between groups of parents and advocates. Education blogger and podcaster Jennifer Berkshire told me, “On the local level, we have an opportunity to not just fight against privatization and other efforts to marketize public education; this is also a chance to articulate an alternative. Can you imagine how powerful it would be if special education parents started to join forces with minority parents in urban areas who are bearing the brunt of school closures?”
3. Get involved statewide and nationally.
Regularly email, phone, and write your representative about education issues. Find out when they will be in your area, and show up to ask about public education issues. Invite your representatives to public meetings to discuss your community’s educational concerns.
Learn about and monitor the education budget in your community and your state. Contact your state representatives about any proposed budget cuts. State budget cuts in education, like those that have taken place in North Carolina, can be devastating to the quality of education in schools.
Look for statewide advocacy organizations, and connect your local organizations to the statewide ones. Roxana Marachi, PhD, an education researcher and activist, recommended to me two organizations to start with: Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and Network for Public Education. Donate or volunteer for civil rights organizations, such as the National Coalition for School Diversity, that advocate for diversity in public schools.
Betsy DeVos’s confirmation is a huge setback for our nation’s public schools. But if all of us — parents, local and state leaders, activists, teachers, union leaders, and every concerned citizen — join together, we can make our voices heard for the sake of our children and do everything we can to prevent the dismantling of public education.