Despite a chorus of critics questioning her commitment to public schools, New York’s most powerful elected Republican, State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, has added his name to a letter supporting Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for education secretary.
Flanagan (R-Smithtown), who once chaired the state senate education committee, joined elected Republican officials from 50 states in a letter sent to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, who was holding her confirmation hearing.
DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, has drawn criticism for supporting charter schools in Detroit that take public education dollars without accompanying public oversight.
State Sen. George Latimer (D-Westchester), the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee, reportedly slammed Flanagan for his action.
“Majority Leader Flanagan should stand up for New York students, not Trump Administration officials dedicated to stripping our state of needed resources,” Latimer told the New York Daily News.
The letter Flanagan signed doesn’t see DeVos that way. His spokesman declined to comment on her nomination despite repeated requests.
“Betsy DeVos will put children first and empower not only states to lead the way in making critical education decisions,” the letter reads, “but also empower parents to choose what type of education is best for their children.”
Alexander’s senate education committee is expected to vote Tuesday on DeVos’ nomination. Then the full Senate will decide whether to confirm her to the cabinet post.
An advocate of school vouchers as well as charters, DeVos is facing a groundswell of opposition from major education groups, including the New York State United Teachers, the United Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as well as local groups on Long Island such as the Badass Teachers Association, New York State Allies for Public Education and Action Together Long Island.
During her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked DeVos if her nomination was tied to her family’s donation of an estimated $200 million to Republican political candidates. She said it wasn’t. He joined Democrats in the Senate who called for a second hearing to look into DeVos’s recently submitted financial disclosures and ethical concerns. The request was denied by Chairman Alexander.
During her often tense Senate hearing, critics said DeVos demonstrated a lack of knowledge about federal laws governing special education students, showed ignorance of the difference between measuring students’ proficiency and growth, and presented a convoluted argument in support of arming teachers in case of attacks by “grizzly bears.” Critics pointed out that she never sent her children to public school. They also cited her lack of teaching experience, as well as her work with pro-charter school advocacy groups Children First America, the American Education Reform Council and the American Federation for Children.
At the hearing, DeVos was asked if she would oppose privatizing public schools and commit to funding public education.
“I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students,” DeVos said in reply.
“We acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them,” she added. “I’m hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”
Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford Schools, said Flanagan’s support of DeVos is “reprehensible.”
“It shows his true colors, and clearly he does not care about public education,” said Hynes, who has been a leading critic of the reliance on standardized state test scores to measure student performance.
Jeanette Deutermann, a Common Core critic, leader of the Opt-Out movement on Long Island and member of the steering committee for the New York State Allies for Public Education, denounced Flanagan’s endorsement of DeVos.
“Anyone who watched those confirmation hearings or dipped even an inch into her background yet still supports her nomination is doing so under a delusional ego-driven political pretense and cares nothing for his young constituents in our Long Island public schools or their parents,” Deutermann told the Press.
Marla Kilfoyle, social studies teacher at Oceanside High School and manager of teacher advocacy group Badass Teachers Association, said that Flanagan’s support for DeVos proved his lack of concern not only for the students of New York, but for the entire nation.
“John Flanagan has shown time and time again that he will put his own needs and wants before the families and children of New York State,” Kilfoyle told the Press. “To endorse a dangerously unqualified candidate like Betsy DeVos, who had no clue that [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] was a federal law that states had to follow, who had no clue what the difference was between proficiency and growth, and who said that guns were okay in schools so we could shoot grizzly bears, only proves she is absolutely unqualified.”
DeVos had pushed for passage of Michigan’s first charter-school bill in 1993, which allowed public money to be used for semi-independent schools that operated outside of the regulations that govern more traditional public schools. Public and private funds poured into the charter initiatives, but there was virtually no transparency on how that money was spent. A Detroit Free Press investigation reported that students’ standardized-test scores at charter schools were no better than traditional public school scores.
The report also found that lower-income students were “effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”
Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent and a charter school supporter, told the Detroit Free Press that “in a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”
DeVos nomination is expected to be approved along party lines.