Before US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at a fundraising gala for a right-wing think tank in Bellevue on Friday evening, hundreds of protesters gathered outside brandishing handmade signs and banners, ready with chants. The protest included speeches from teachers, students, political candidates and politicians, including King County Executive Dow Constantine, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Washington State Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski and Bellevue Mayor John Stokes.
Amy Hepburn, a counselor in the Highline School District and member of the WA BATs (Washington State Teachers Defending Public Education), was motivated to protest by “abject terror about the privatization that’s happening around our schools.” She worried the money the event raised would help build charter schools.
DeVos spoke at a gala for the Washington Policy Center, and reportedly helped the group raise $900,000 dollars that evening. You can read her full speech here.
Hepburn worried that charter schools are more focused on making money for investors than serving students, she said. “They provide an education to children as cheaply as possible, and then they pocket the rest of the money that the state gives them per student.”
DeVos has “ruined schools in her home state,” Hepburn said.
Before she was appointed Secretary of Education by President Trump, DeVos was a prominent figure in the Michigan Republican Party and a billionaire lobbyist who expanded school vouchers and charter schools in Michigan. Over 20 years, charter schools proliferated in Michigan. They failed to significantly raise student performance or close the achievement gap, and because they were private, they were shielded from accountability.
Karen Adlum, an elementary school teacher in the Highline School District, said public education is important because it’s equitable. She worries that charter schools lead to greater segregation, including by race. Without people being exposed to others different from them, “the racial problems that we have in this country are only gonna be exacerbated.”
Laura Marquez, who works at the University of Washington and is parent to a fifth grader in public school, said she’s concerned about DeVos weakening of Title IX protections against victims sexual assault. In September, DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidelines that made it easier to discipline those accused at Universities. “I’m concerned that the trajectory she’s taking will remove funding for the bare minimum that we’ve already had in place,” Marquez said.
Marquez’s fifth grader daughter Hazel added, “I’ve had more public education than she has. The leader of public schools hasn’t had any education in a public school.”
King County Executive Constantine said to the crowd of protesters: “Being a billionaire right-wing donor should not give you license to take a sledgehammer to the foundation of equal opportunity. No, it should not. But here she is. American prosperity, really American democracy, are built on the bedrock of universal education.”
Manka Dhingra, the Democratic candidate for Washington’s 45th Legislative district, said a “fully funded public education system is the foundation of our democracy.”
“As a prosecutor, I see on a daily basis what happens to children who fall through the cracks,” she said. “They come into a very expensive criminal justice system.”
Graciela Nuñez, an undocumented DACA recipient from Venezuela, spoke about the importance of ESL classes in public school, which allowed her to learn English. “I’m afraid that Betsy’s policies and twisted ideas will make it harder for students like me to succeed,” she said.
A small handful of counter protesters showed up when speeches began, carrying signs made from marker scribbled on cardboard. They were supporting school choice and vouchers.
Maya Ojalehto said she supports what DeVos “is standing for.”
“We should work on the public schools, but we should also give kids an option that want to go somewhere else,” she said.
Jeff Jared, a lawyer from Kirkland, said education vouchers would “empower poor kids” to be able to choose schools. “I want to privatize the post office, but I’m not critical of postal workers. I want to privatize the public schools, but I love teachers,” he said.