Earlier this week, Katie Keier, a kindergarten teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, was in a meeting with colleagues about student literacy. But instead of the topic at hand, the conversation turned to politics.
The small group talked about their dislike of Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education. Keier urged the group to make calls to their representatives to oppose DeVos’ confirmation.
But in the wake of the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and its sister marches and rallies around the world, the group was feeling like they could do more than just engage from a distance. Althea Goldberg, another teacher in the group, suggested that they plan a protest in Washington and invite people on Facebook, Keier said.
Now, just a few days later, more than 2,000 people on Facebook say they’re going to that demonstration, which is planned for Sunday. More than 12,000 people have said they’re interested. The event description says “We are gathering as teachers, students, parents, and stakeholders in our society to oppose Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.”
Keier, who has never planned a political demonstration before, says she’s blown away.
“In my 25 years of teaching and being very aware of the education secretary, I’ve never seen backlash like this,” she said.
Keier is one of the grassroots activists fighting vigorously to keep DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and conservative donor, from having control over the nation’s schools. DeVos’ detractors have been speaking out since Trump nominated her in November, but their voices seem to have grown louder since DeVos’ confirmation hearing last week. Rallies to oppose DeVos have broken out across the country.
Credo Action, a progressive social change network associated with a mobile phone company of the same name, says it’s never seen a response to one of its petitions like the one that protests DeVos, which has received more than 1.4 million signatures. The petition calls on Senate Democrats to block DeVos’ confirmation, saying, “We have to do everything we can to keep the U.S. Department of Education out of her unqualified hands.”
The organization has petitions opposing other Trump nominees, but those have not gained traction like the one criticizing DeVos. Josh Nelson, Credo Action’s deputy political director, thinks it’s because the issue of education feels especially personal to many people.
“I think the Education Department is something that touches a lot of Americans’ lives,” he said. “People may not realize, for something else like the Treasury Department or Health and Human Services or Department of Labor, how it affects their life.”
DeVos has also received her share of support from high-profile Republicans and Democrats alike. This past week was National School Choice Week, and advocates of educational options held events around the country. At one such event in D.C., DeVos received praise from prominent politicians, students and teachers.
“We are about to have a secretary of education who not only believes in school choice but has been fighting for school choice,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at a rally, per The Washington Post.
DeVos has spent many years as an educational activist championing charter schools and voucher programs, which use taxpayer dollars to help send kids to private schools. Teachers unions have come out strongly against DeVos, saying she’s intent on destroying traditional public schools. DeVos denies this, saying she is interested in giving poor children the same educational options as their more affluent peers. Her supporters say she is single-mindedly focused on implementing reforms that would help children, even if it shakes up the status quo.
But DeVos’ detractors have been putting in time and effort to stand in the way of her ascent. The National Education Association ― the nation’s largest teachers union ― says it has seen unprecedented action against DeVos by its members. A campaign from the union to block DeVos has resulted in more than 40,000 people calling their senators and more than 1 million people signing a form that sends e-mails to their representatives, according to The Washington Post.
There is also evidence that some leaders on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions have received a disproportionate number of calls from constituents opposing DeVos, the Post notes.
On the other side, groups like the Center for Education Reform have been encouraging supporters to also call senators “so lies do not outweigh the truth about education opportunity.” Detailed numbers about CER’s pro-DeVos campaign were not available as of Saturday afternoon.
Keier has strong fears about what DeVos would do if she is put in charge of the Education Department. She worries that DeVos would neglect low-income students and students with special needs, and that her policies of school choice could further segregate students by race. Keier is also concerned that DeVos has not spent enough time in public schools to be qualified for the position. Indeed, DeVos has never formally worked in a school.
Before this, Keier says she “never felt fearful for the children in front of me in my classroom every day, being impacted by forces that would be out of my control as a teacher.”
The Senate HELP committee is set to vote on DeVos on Tuesday. Democrats on the committee have said they will not vote for her. The group’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), is a strong supporter of DeVos, and says she has been treated unfairly by critics.
“Few Americans have done as much to help low-income students have a choice of better schools,” Alexander wrote in a post on Medium this week. “She is on the side of our children. Her critics may resent that, but this says more about them than it does about her.”
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.