- Harrison Berry
- Colette Raptosh, one of the organizers of the walkout, cheers in the foreground.
Though some of them aren't old enough to vote, many of those with the most at stake in public education gathered at the Idaho State Capitol steps this morning as part of a student walk-out and public rally to protest the confirmation of billionaire and charter school enthusiast Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education.
"The Idaho government didn't hear us when we called them. Education is a right, not a privilege," said high school student Nora Harren, one of the organizers of the Education Rally and a co-founder of People for Unity.
Idaho Ed News reported phone calls to Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo's office regarding DeVos' nomination were against her 19-1, but despite the outpouring of concern and criticism, Sens. Crapo and Jim Risch voted for DeVos Feb. 7, when Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote.
Harren and Raptosh have been garnering headlines for organizing the Unity Rally after President Donald Trump was elected, and for organizing the Women's March on Idaho in January. They spearheaded today's Education Rally, which attracted hundreds of students, educators and concerned citizens. The message: Betsy DeVos is a threat to the institution she now heads, and Idaho's young people should have a say in safeguarding their right to education.
"The purpose of the demonstration is to make our voices loud and clear that we support public education and public education in Idaho. We (students) do not support our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her vision for the future of education in the United States. We feel that it will create de-facto segregation in our school system based on factors such as economic status, gender, race and sexuality," the organizers wrote in a Q&A about the rally.
"On the outside, her ideas could be interesting, but it's taking away from public education," said 17-year-old Boise High School junior Madeleine McLean, who worked with Harren and Raptosh to organize and promote the walkout. "We have to defend those rights."
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos famously refused to answer a question from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) about whether charter schools should be subject to the same standards as traditional public schools. She couldn't distinguish between proficiency and growth when questioned by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota). She was asked point blank by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) if she thought she would have been nominated for education secretary had she not donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party.
Attendees of today's rally criticized DeVos for her lack of experience and knowledge of the public school system and the Department of Education. Many said they worried she would use her authority and influence to dismantle public education, expand voucher programs and grow the charter school system, which students see as a sap on resources otherwise used for traditional public schools.
For years DeVos has been an advocate for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, and her work there has been panned for insulating charter schools from "commonsense oversight," even as traditional public schools founder.
"Taking away from public schools doesn't make any sense," said 16-year-old Lilly Michener, a sophomore at Boise High School.
Another theme of the rally was pride in taking civic action, with many of the high school-age students attending saying their parents approved of them skipping class to attend the 10 a.m. event. Several current and former educators who joined the demonstration agreed.
"Even the youth agree Betsy DeVos was a poor choice," said Boise State University science lecturer Jessie Sherburne.
Tasha Souza, a professor of communications at Boise State and mother of two children in public school, said she was "really proud" of the students for taking action.
"It's our civic duty to engage, and public schools are our future," she said.
The event attracted a handful of counter-demonstrators, too, most of whom criticized protesters for discounting DeVos before she had tipped her positions on education policy. One, Caleb Christensen, wore a red Make America Great Again hat and carried a Don't Tread on Me flag.
"I agree with them. I believe she's disqualified. [DeVos] is not an educator," he said, but warned of drawing premature conclusions.
"We need to see what she does," Christensen added.
Brian Stutzman, who said he has children who attended charter schools, echoed Christensen's sentiment, saying America "ought to give DeVos a chance." He said it would be "nuts" to "pre-judge," but said specific issues like Common Core and reduced school choice for parents irk him.
Some of the counter-demonstrations were on the wild side. When asked to comment for this story, one man said, "Fuck you. You're fake news," as he walked in front of the protest carrying a sign suggesting investor and Holocaust survivor George Soros is a Nazi. The counter-protester was followed by a swarm of people who repeatedly attempted to block his sign. Another man carried a sign calling for the dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education.
This isn't the first time rally organizers have been direct targets of criticism.
"A lot of people tell me it's not worth it," said Emily Wilde, a Borah High School senior who worked with Harren, Raptosh and McLean.
Ultimately, however, the students and their supporters outlasted the detractors and the critics, having spent almost two hours on the Capitol Steps chanting and standing in solidarity. In doing so, they achieved a goal.
"I think it's important for the youth to be invested in politics," McLean said.