the big shift

Cory Booker vs. Cory Booker: Two videos to understand how the politics of education are being reshaped in the Trump era

President Donald Trump hasn’t yet changed the policy of education in America. But two speeches by the same man — one last night and one in May — show how his election is changing the politics.

In one, speaking late last night on the Senate floor, Cory Booker, a Democrat senator from New Jersey, made an emotional case for why he will not support Betsy DeVos’s nomination as secretary of education. His opposition centered around a concern that DeVos would not protect students’ civil rights.

Booker, the former mayor of Newark, invoked the story of Ruby Bridges, who desegregated an all-white public school in New Orleans. “I feel I owe her a duty … not to vote on someone who has been silent on the issues that are so critical to this country being who we say we are,” he said.

Part of Booker’s remarks:

In the other speech, which Booker delivered last May, Booker praised DeVos’s nonprofit education advocacy organization as a champion of civil rights. By promoting school choice through charter schools and vouchers, the organization was helping to carry out the next and “final” phase of the civil rights movement, Booker said.

He made the speech at the annual gathering for the organization DeVos founded in 2010 and led until shortly after her nomination, the American Federation for Children. “The mission of this organization is aligned with the mission of our nation,” he said.

Here are those remarks:

Booker’s turnaround on DeVos reflects changes afoot in the politics of education. His speech last night on the Senate floor might have been typical in the 1980s or 1990s: A Democrat opposing a Republican’s education position on the grounds that it does not support the civil rights of vulnerable populations.

But in the last 25 years, a group of Democrats and Republicans came together around an education agenda that was both explicitly pro-civil rights — traditionally Democratic terrain — and explicitly pro-market-style reform, like charter schools and, for some, vouchers — traditionally Republican terrain.

In his career, Booker has been a more extreme example of Democrats embracing issues that are traditionally third rails for their party. He not only actively supports charter schools, whose growth teachers unions oppose, but has been an enthusiastic proponent of publicly funded private school vouchers. That’s why he was able to say, in his remarks at the American Federation for Children event, that he has been involved with the group for 10 years. Booker’s argument, like that of other Democrats who support vouchers, is that poor children and children of color need escape valves from struggling public schools.

Booker isn’t alone. Kevin Chavous, an education activist, helped to found a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which rose to encourage Democrats to support school choice and other education policies they have traditionally opposed. Chavous also spoke at DeVos’s organization’s event in May and serves as a board member for the organization. But today, Democrats for Education Reform has come out aggressively opposing DeVos.

Booker did not mention vouchers or charter schools, but instead focused on concerns about the education department’s Office of Civil Rights, which he said he fears will be diluted under DeVos. The omission points to an important point: Behind the change in the education coalition is a shift in politics, not education policy positions. In the wake of Trump’s election, other issues — including Trump’s stance on immigration, LGBTQ communities, and women’s issues — are driving a wedge between Democrats and Republicans who previously could find common ground on education issues.

Writing on Facebook last night, Derrell Bradford, an education activist who supports school vouchers, noted the shift in Booker’s remarks. “It’s pretty safe to say that, regardless of the outcome, tomorrow there won’t be an ed reform ‘left’ as we know it anymore,” Bradford wrote. “Maybe a good thing. Maybe a bad thing. Either way, it’s a thing.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.