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Long Islanders boo, cheer Betsy DeVos’ confirmation

Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, who represents Long

Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, speaks to members of the panel during a meeting at the state Education Department in Albany on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Credit: Hans Pennink

Public school educators and teacher unions on Long Island and at the state level largely denounced Betsy DeVos’ confirmation Tuesday as the nation’s secretary of education, while supporters of school choice celebrated and claimed victory.

That the matter required a tiebreaking vote in the U.S. Senate from Vice President Mike Pence — a first-ever for a cabinet appointee — demonstrated the might of public education advocates, even as their fierce protest movement fell short, some opponents of DeVos said.

“We’re optimistic in the sense of what this did. This whole movement displayed that in times of fear, communities come together,” said Michael Krieger, president of the Bay Shore Classroom Teachers Association. “This isn’t a defeat. If anything, this is more motivation for us as educators, parents and students to come together in this fight.”

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire philanthropist and Republican mega-donor, has supported taxpayer-subsidized vouchers and the expansion of charter schools. Skeptics have pointed to her lack of experience in the sphere of public education and predicted less federal funding for them under DeVos’ leadership.

Fears of fewer dollars for public schools stem from President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to reallocate $20 billion in existing federal funds for 11 million students living in “absolute poverty.” The money instead would be doled out as part of a block grant program available to the states, but specifics of that plan have not been laid out.

Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, said after the Senate’s 51-50 vote, “I’m not surprised, but I’m very disappointed.” Tilles formerly served on Michigan’s State Board of Education and in other state posts there in the 1970s.

“I don’t believe her education philosophy is at all in sync with New York’s or the majority of the country,” Tilles said. “Having been in Michigan, their family was well-known to me and used their financial muscle to get their education philosophy through there. It’s been an abysmal failure.”

New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teacher union, blasted the action, calling DeVos “a dangerous ideologue with absolutely no experience or qualifications to lead the U.S. Department of Education.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Andrea Vecchio, a founder of a local East Islip Tax Pac taxpayer group, was delighted.

“It’s a great day. I’m just overjoyed,” said Vecchio, who also helped create Long Islanders for Educational Reform in 2005. “I think people are going to love her, when they see the results of what she does.”

Vecchio said she believes that DeVos’ support for charter schools and school vouchers will have less impact on Long Island than in other parts of the country because of the substantial influence of teacher unions in this region.

DeVos, in her confirmation hearing, also was criticized by some senators for showing a seeming unfamiliarity with IDEA — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and other major federal school laws and programs.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, who was in Rockville Centre on Tuesday night for a public forum on diploma standards, told a reporter that many school groups are worried about the new secretary’s “knowledge base.”

“We are going to be in a wait-and-see, with the hope that she shares some of the same priorities that we have for our state and children,” said Rosa, a former school administrator from the Bronx.

Several speakers at the forum, attended by about 300 teachers, parents and others, also voiced concern over DeVos’ lack of experience and what they perceive as rising political partisanship.

On Monday, teachers in some Long Island districts wore black clothing as part of a national day of protest against DeVos. Since Trump chose her in November, several local school boards passed resolutions opposing her nomination and educators took to social media and staged protests outside of schools in a vocal grassroots campaign.

“While people aren’t sure what Secretary of the Treasury does, everybody has been to school and has an opinion about education,” Russ Whitehurst, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said Tuesday. “That enabled a larger turnout of opposition.”

James Cultrara, director for education for the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents eight diocesan and 500 Catholic schools statewide, said he hopes DeVos’ confirmation will mean support for federal and state tax credits to help cover costs of attendance at non-public schools or for some other mechanism to allow more students, especially impoverished ones, to attend non-public schools of their choice.

“We feel the focus on enabling families to send children to schools that best fit their needs is long overdue,” Cultrara said.

Long Island has four charter schools, which are tuition-free public schools funded on a per-pupil basis.

Raymond Ankrum, principal and executive director of Riverhead Charter School, still voiced questions about DeVos after Tuesday’s vote.

“Any time two members of your party (who listened intently to their constituents) vote no to your appointment, that raises serious questions around the merit of the choice,” Ankrum wrote in an email, referring to the two Republican senators who voted against DeVos. “That aside, I hope Mrs. DeVos takes the opportunity to hear what the people say they want, as opposed to ramming through predetermined agenda that may or may not be in the best interest of students that need her help the most (poor and disenfranchised students). These students come from both public and charter schools.”

Activists and educators who opposed DeVos’ confirmation vowed to press their case during her tenure as education secretary.

“So now what do we do? We shore up New York,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a parent of two in the North Bellmore school district and founder of the Long Island Opt Out movement. She urged New Yorkers to support state regulations for rigorous oversight of charter schools and resist the policies of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who recently called for expanding the number of charter schools in New York City.

Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district, said more than one-third of teachers there wore black on Monday — a sign of protest that may be repeated “in solidarity of public education, because it is a dark day.”

“We need to figure out collectively how to fight what she’s promoting,” he said.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), majority leader of the state Senate since 2015 who previously was chairman of the Senate Education Committee, had no comment Tuesday on DeVos’ confirmation.

On Jan. 17, shortly before DeVos was questioned by U.S. senators, Flanagan joined more than 140 elected state officers across the country in signing a letter that endorsed her appointment. Flanagan was the only New York State official to sign the letter.

The letter stated in part, “We represent elected state offices from all 50 states, and as such, we each know the impact of an overgrown federal government reaching into the states to push a one-size-fits-all approach to education. No two state, localities or school districts are the same, nor are the needs of the children who reside there. Betsy DeVos understands this distinction and for years has embraced a variety of education solutions to meet this need.”

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