BY TARA SMITH
For nearly three hours on Jan. 17, Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Dr. Michael Hynes watched Betsy DeVos’ senate confirmation hearing in near disbelief as she stumbled over basic policy questions. At one point, she suggested that states should decide whether to enforce federal civil rights laws in schools and cited “potential grizzlies” as a reason to not ban guns from schools.
Though the comments made for entertaining late-night sketch comedy material and memes, they troubled educators nationwide. Republicans have widely praised DeVos for her advocacy in cutting federal involvement in education and plan to take on teachers’ unions.
Ever since her name was brought into the discussion late last year, teachers, administrators and parents have spoken out against the nomination. In December, the Patchogue-Medford school board became the first school board on Long Island to pass a resolution against DeVos, claiming she was “unqualified and unfit” to serve, Hynes explained. Other school districts followed suit in passing similar resolutions. “This board has been very progressive in trying to stop certain things,” Hynes added, explaining their noted opposition to Common Core and state testing through eighth grade. “I’ve been very vocal about my opinion on testing. I’d like to think that most principals and superintendents agree, but there is a fear of retribution as far as withholding state funding possibility if you are too outspoken.”
That fear hasn’t stopped Patchogue-Medford district before, and isn’t now that DeVos has officially been confirmed. Last month, the Advance published a letter from Pat-Med Congress of Teachers president Beth Warnken addressing their concerns about DeVos. “We, the teachers in Patchogue-Medford, stand united in support of our schools. We believe in public education and the right every child has to a free and appropriate education. We are concerned how national policies may adversely affect our public schools and the quality education our students receive,” the sixth-grade teacher wrote in her letter. One day before the inauguration, many Pat-Med teachers stood in solidarity with hundreds of teachers in at least 27 other states during a peaceful rally in Bay Shore.
Approximately 80 area educators rallied against the Republican mega-donor. Pat-Med teachers who couldn’t make it to the rally wore red in solidarity. “It was a sea of red here,” Hynes noted.
Troubled by her lack of experience, Hynes wished that she had some sort of background in education to contextualize her nomination. “She has never held any educational position, whether that means working as a teacher or in a school in any capacity. She’s never been an administrator; her kids never went to public school. I don’t even think she knows anybody who has been to a public school in her family,” Hynes said.
Her public school agenda is the main reason Hynes opposes her nomination. “She has a pure love for the privatization of public schools and the notion that an open market is what’s best for kids,” Hynes added, noting that there is no evidence that charter schools do a better job at educating kids.
Hynes pointed to Michigan, DeVos’ home state, for examples of public schools gone awry due to the rise of charter, religious and online education platforms, which are not held accountable the same way public schools are.
“There is no transparency,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a parent who founded Long Island Opt-Out in 2013. Despite taxpayer monies being used to fund voucher programs that DeVos advocates for, Deutermann argues that parents should have a say in district happenings, emphasizing the importance of school boards and fair elections. “With charter school executive boards, it’s like corporate control,” she said.
The business-model applied to schools goes completely against the whole-child approach to learning that Dr. Hynes has embraced at Pat-Med. “You can’t run a school like a business because kids aren’t widgets,” he said. “You can’t standardize kids.”
After watching the hearing, it became clear to Deutermann that DeVos would not try and hide her affection for privatizing schools. “She showed no intention of supporting or trying to improve the public school system,” Deutermann said. “No one says public schools are perfect, but her solution is to close them. Public schools are a cornerstone of democracy.”
Hynes fears that many on Long Island do not think this will affect them locally. “You hear about charter schools in targeted school districts, but I don’t think it will matter what your zip code is or how well you think your school district is when [DeVos] comes into play,” he said. “It will be about choice, and parents might take advantage of the opportunity to send their kids to a charter school,” he said, explaining how that system eventually crumbles the foundation for public schools.
According to the New York State Education Department, 2015-2016 figures for charter school tuition in the Pat-Med district were $13,164. Hynes reported that only five of the nearly 8,000 Pat-Med students attend charter schools.
For Hynes, Warnken and Deutermann, this appointment has helped solidify their belief in a strong public school system. “There are a lot of things we can control within a school, but what I tell our staff and board is that we must work together to influence the things we can’t control,” Hynes said, explaining that he will continue to focus on his students first and foremost. “Public schools are not just about your child, they are about everybody’s child,” he said. “They are essential if you believe in democracy, in communities, and you believe in educating everyone’s child because at some point they are going to be citizens of your community,” he continued. “I’m not just saying this as a superintendent, but as a dad as well,” he added, noting his five kids are all enrolled in public schools.
Warnken agrees. ““I had serious reservations about her nomination before the Senate hearing, but after watching the hearing, I am outraged,” she said. “Her philosophies would hurt our students and their future. If she’s appointed, I fear for the dismantling of public education. Our students deserve so much better.”
Local support from other districts has been sparse. A spokesperson for William Floyd School District said that the district “does not take a position on the president’s cabinet appointments. We will work with whoever assumes the role of secretary of education.” Officials from the South Country School District declined requests for comment.
Despite this, Hynes has colleagues north and west who believe in the same things. For anyone who shares these sentiments, he urges action. After passing the resolution, the board has written our state senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, urging them to vote against confirming DeVos. In a Facebook post dated Jan. 24, Gillibrand wrote that she shared concerns over DeVos’ nomination to be education secretary. “I will be voting against her confirmation and I will urge my fellow senators to do the same,” she wrote. “Students, parents and teachers deserve an education secretary whose commitment to public education and safe schools will not waver. If public education fails, America fails, and I do not believe Mrs. DeVos shares my commitment to a strong public education system.”
Despite an ethics review and senators’ phone and email lines flooded with opposition, DeVos was appointed as education secretary on Jan. 31, by a 12-11 vote.
Photo by Tara Smith.
*This story was originally published in a January 2017 issue of the Long Island Advance.