Betsy DeVos Faces Protests at Harvard Talk

Juan Cofield, member of the MEJA steering committee and No on 2 campaign chair, speaks against Betsy DeVos and Paul Sagan's attempts to privatize public education.

Juan Cofield, member of the MEJA steering committee and No on 2 campaign chair, speaks against Betsy DeVos and Paul Sagan's attempts to privatize public education.

Demonstrators Draw Link to Baker’s Education Chair: Paul “Dark Money” Sagan

Students, educators, civil rights and anti-sexual-violence activists slammed the policies of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today in front of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where DeVos was invited to speak.

The protesters expressed strong opposition to efforts by DeVos to privatize public education through vouchers and charter schools and to her recent decision to rescind an Obama administration policy that strengthened the rights of survivors of sexual violence on college campuses.

“We are deeply disturbed that Secretary DeVos is undermining public education by promoting the dismantling of public education through the use of vouchers and charter schools,” said Juan Cofield, speaking on behalf of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance. “It’s appalling that she refuses to commit to barring federal funds from going to schools that discriminate based on religious affiliation, sexual orientation or special needs.”

“Harvard's decision to invite and highlight this speaker, who has made it her life's work to dismantle public education, unions and civil rights for students of all genders, is white supremacy in action,” said Alexizendria Link, a Worcester public school teacher. Link also addressed an anti-racism rally on Boston Common in August that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators.

Harvard students slammed DeVos for her decision last week to rescind Title IX guidance on school sexual assault. The new Trump administration guidance allows schools to use a more stringent standard of proof in campus disciplinary proceedings related to sexual violence. Amelia Goldberg, an organizer with the campus anti-sexual-violence group Our Harvard Can Do Better, said the new guidance is “stacking the system against the students it was meant to serve.”

Goldberg added that Harvard’s silence is tantamount to complicity, and she called on the university to “make itself an example for the nation by taking preventive action against sexual and gender-based violence and supporting survivors of such violence.” Goldberg further demanded that the university commit to protecting survivors’ access to education, including by upholding the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.

Lily Velona, a member of Harvard’s Trans Task Force, said, "The diversity of Betsy DeVos' violence is impressive: from endangering trans students at school to sheltering campus rapists to her speech on Thursday, where she will call for an end to the public right to education. Each of these unjust acts is made all the more possible and desirable by the disturbing profit she makes off of them. She has nothing to say that we need to hear."

Carrying signs that said “Dump DeVos and Dump Sagan,” protesters also drew a link between DeVos and Paul Sagan, Governor Charlie Baker’s appointed chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Earlier this month, a state oversight agency revealed that Sagan had given nearly half a million dollars in “dark money” to a group supporting Question 2, last fall’s failed ballot initiative to lift the cap on charter schools.

“Paul Sagan and Betsy DeVos are using their vast wealth to support policies that undermine the very public schools they are charged with protecting,” said MTA President Barbara Madeloni. “Sagan’s failure to be transparent about how much money he was giving to the pro-charter campaign was an appalling breach of the public trust. It’s time for Paul Sagan to go.”

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, criticized DeVos and the Trump administration for their proposal to slash funding for public schools. Trump’s plan, which has not yet been acted on, would slash federal education funding by $9.2 billion overall, including a steep cut in the office responsible for enforcing civil rights in the nation’s schools and transferring $1 billion in Title 1 funding for low-income students and to a new school “choice” program.

This administration is all about protecting private interests over the public interest.
— Jessica Tang

Isabelle Doerre Torres, a senior at Boston Latin School, said that even though her school is better off than most, it is still badly underfunded.

“People in the government like Betsy Devos cut funding for public schools, then have the nerve to say they aren’t functioning and we have to make new schools,” she said. “Instead of creating even more choices and spreading resources out even thinner, how about we invest in the many public schools that already exist?”

Zac Bears, executive director of PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, said Trump and DeVos have shown which side they’re on, from their suspension of rules protecting students who had been defrauded by for-profit colleges to attempts to limit student loan repayment options, to attempts to cut billions of dollars from federal student aid. On top of state-level cuts and inaction on Beacon Hill, DeVos’ higher education proposals would increase the already steep cost of public college and make the student debt crisis even worse, both in Massachusetts and across the country.

“Betsy DeVos sided with the Trump universities of this country and against students who had been defrauded,” said Bears. “The DeVos agenda is a direct assault on the students and families who are struggling under the heavy burden of high costs and massive student debt at public colleges and universities here in Massachusetts.”

Graciela Mohamedi, a public school teacher and parent of two public school students, closed out the rally with an impassioned rejection of the DeVos agenda.

“No to rollbacks on protections for sexual assault survivors,” she said. “No to ignoring the voices of students of color. No to removing funding and accessibility to special education programs and disability initiatives. And no to turning our schools into another way for you and your billionaire buddies like Paul Sagan to further line your pockets with hard-earned taxpayer money!!! NO! NO! NO! NO!”

The protest was organized by MEJA, a coalition of education, labor, parent, student and civil rights organizations; Harvard student groups, including Harvard Law School HALT and Our Harvard Can Do Better; and other community, labor and social justice organizations, including Our Revolution Boston, PHENOM and Massachusetts Jobs With Justice.