A panel that oversees New York City’s school system cast a symbolic vote on Monday to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary.
The New York City Panel for Educational Policy passed a resolution against Donald Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Education, saying her positions “jeopardize access” to public education, and that she “failed to demonstrate a sufficient understanding” of basic education policy during her confirmation hearing earlier this month.
Vanessa Leung, who chairs the panel, said the PEP decided to take up the issue after getting feedback from the public.
“I think realizing, as the largest school district of the nation, that this would be somewhat of a landmark to show our support, we worked quickly,” she told Chalkbeat. “It is a symbolic gesture, but I think that what you’re hearing is a commitment from the panel to continue working with parents and the community.”
DeVos is a billionaire philanthropist who backs the deregulation of charters and the use of public money to help parents pay private school tuition. She has not worked in public education, and both attended and sent her own children to private schools.
Before the vote, more than one comparison was made to Cathie Black, a media executive with limited previous education experience who briefly led the New York City Department of Education. She quit after a few months on the job.
“We don’t want someone to learn the system. We need someone who knows the system and has vision,” said PEP member T. Elzora Cleveland.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a non-voting member of the PEP, was careful not to openly criticize the nominee, though her department has sought to comfort parents and students worried by Donald Trump’s positions on immigration issues.
“People need to understand that we live in a democracy, and a democracy is a place where educators teach students and adults to use their intelligence to make decisions based on facts,” she said. “I admire the PEP for deciding that this is an issue that is of importance to them … It’s all about leadership and making decisions, and then standing up and saying ‘This is what I believe.’”
Panel member Peter Calandrella, who represents Staten Island, cast the lone opposition vote, but declined to say why.
Just before the PEP cast its vote, hundreds of public school supporters rallied on the steps of the city’s Department of Education headquarters, Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. The crowd spilled into the street and onto the sidewalk, hoisting signs that read “Dump DeVos” and “Defend public education.”
Many signs poked fun at DeVos’s suggestion during her confirmation hearing that schools may need guns to protect students from grizzly bears. One sign featured a book of the Berenstain Bears. Another declared DeVos “unbearable.”
Public Advocate Letitia James briefly led the crowd in chants of “Resist! Resist! Resist!”
“She’s demonstrated an appalling lack of knowledge about education fundamentals,” James said. “Our children deserve someone with experience, an education secretary who has demonstrated that they are committed to public education and who doesn’t have a track record of undermining public education.”
Brooke Parker, who helped organize the rally on behalf of various groups including Change the Stakes and NYC Kids PAC, questioned DeVos’s heavy political spending.
“The irony here is people are concerned about lobbyists. But we just went straight to the tap” by nominating DeVos, she said.
DeVos faces a Senate committee vote on Tuesday. Though Democrats are expected to vote against her, some Republicans would have to break party lines to reject her confirmation.