Education

Miami teacher union joins protests of Trump education nominee

Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef High School, dressed like Lady Liberty to join the United Teachers of Dade protest Thursday. The union took part in a nationwide protest calling on the Senate to reject Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.
Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef High School, dressed like Lady Liberty to join the United Teachers of Dade protest Thursday. The union took part in a nationwide protest calling on the Senate to reject Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Dozens of Miami-Dade teachers joined more than 200 other teacher unions across the country Thursday in protesting President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education.

Close to 100 teachers and activists gathered outside Miami Jackson Senior High School to urge the U.S. Senate to reject Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. Similar rallies were held in 25 states in an effort intended to ramp up political opposition to DeVos, a powerful proponent of parental choice and charter schools, and to call for greater investment in public education and schools.

Demonstrators in Allapattah lined 36th Street outside the high school, waving signs and chanting “Betsy needs to go!” and “Save our schools!” as some passing cars honked in support.

“How can we have a nominee who has never even attended a public school, whose children have never attended public school?” asked Donna Walker, a special-education teacher at Brucie Ball Educational Center, voicing a common complaint among the protesters.

“If she is appointed, the message will be sent that you can buy your way into the White House,” added co-worker Ivonne Diaz.

The controversy over DeVos’ nomination stems from both her lack of experience and her support for the school choice movement. Supporters advocate for options like charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by independent governing boards, and school vouchers, which use public funds to help families pay for private school tuition. School choice advocates say such options enable parents to pick the best fit for their child, but critics argue that they have increasingly steered public money away from and weakened traditional public schools.

At a confirmation hearing Tuesday, Democratic senators grilled DeVos about her support for school choice, her family’s political contributions and her lack of knowledge regarding education policy debates, criticisms that were echoed by the Miami-Dade teachers union.

“She’s never taught a day in her life, she’s never been an administrator or a school board member,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats. She “has really only been in the business of education to dismantle public education.”

Tukeliah Gullett, a middle school language arts teacher at José Martí MAST Academy, also expressed concern over DeVos’ support for charter schools and voucher programs. “As a public school teacher, I have no issue with good charter schools; I have an issue with companies trying to make money off of poor kids’ education,” she said.

Others groups, including charter school supporters, are enthusiastic about DeVos. At the state level, Florida has traditionally been supportive of charter schools and a pioneer in the realm of school choice, with a robust voucher-like program that provides businesses with tax credits in exchange for donations to scholarships that help cover private school tuition.

“From our perspective, we support school choice, and I don’t think it should be a political issue,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, the executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. “I think parents know what their children need and appreciate the opportunity to find that right fit.”

Although some teachers outside Miami Jackson High were concerned about what a DeVos administration might mean for public education, they said they planned to stick with the profession no matter what.

“Teaching is a calling. No matter how tough it gets, we keep coming back because we care about [the students] growing and becoming well-rounded people,” said Caroline Biggs, a music teacher at two nearby elementary schools.

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