Hundreds of protesters angry about attacks on public education packed the sidewalk outside of Harvard’s Kennedy School on Sept. 28 to protest during an appearance by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Parents, students, educators and community activists assailed DeVos’ agenda, which seeks to expand privatization schemes that dismantle public education, roll back civil rights protections for victims of sexual assault, and prop up for-profit colleges despite their track record of leading students deeply into debt.
The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, of which the MTA is a key member, worked with Harvard University student groups and local social justice and labor organizations to organize the rally.
MTA President Barbara Madeloni told the crowd that it is time to fight “millionaires and billionaires coming after public education.” Madeloni cited DeVos’ track record in Michigan, where she led a campaign to massively expand charter schools, leaving district public schools in financial shambles.
Madeloni also talked about the similar policies advocated by DeVos and Paul Sagan, chair of state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who donated $496,000 to Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy in support of the failed campaign last year to lift the cap on privately operated charter schools in Massachusetts. FESA recently paid a record fine after an investigation by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance revealed its failure to properly disclose millions of dollars channeled to the Yes on Question 2 effort, including Sagan’s contributions.
Many MTA activists at the rally were waving signs that read “Dump DeVos/Dump Sagan: Public Funds 4 Public Schools.”
“This is a fight for something bigger,” Madeloni said to cheers from the crowd, calling the privatization policies supported by DeVos and Sagan a civil rights issue and saying that they promote segregation.
Alexizendria Link, a public school teacher in Worcester, said that privatization is destroying public education.
“I go into overcrowded classrooms because money is funneled away to charter schools,” she said.
Many of those assembled outside as DeVos addressed attendees of a conference promoting “school choice” were protesting her higher education policies, particularly the recent Trump administration announcement that it is rolling back Title IX protections used by victims of campus sexual assault.
“She can’t stack the system against the students Title IX is meant to serve,” said Amelia Goldberg of Our Harvard Can Do Better.
Others raised the issue of DeVos’ ties to companies that profit from student loan debt-collection services.
Zac Bears, director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, pointed out that as public funding at UMass Amherst has gone down, the number of lower-income students attending the school has likewise dropped.
“Student debt at UMass feeds inequality,” Bears said.
Other speakers addressed their concerns about special education programs, especially since many charter schools and private schools that DeVos proposes to support — either through district funding or vouchers paid for by the public — do not educate all students.
Isabelle Doerre Torres, a senior at Boston Latin School, summed up the rally’s message when she said, “Our government favors the wealthy. But equitable public education is a right for all, not a privilege.”