By Haley Frederick
Current Staff Wrter
It’s not really a surprise to anyone, but U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos isn’t very well liked among educators across the country. That was made even clearer today when about 1,000 educators and concerned community members marched through Downtown Pittsburgh Saturday evening.
Chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Betsy Devos has got to go!” and “Public education makes a nation,” echoed through the crowd as they began “The March to Fund Public Schools.” The event kicked off at about 4:30 p.m. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is hosting its biennial convention this weekend.
Many educators say Devos’ agenda shows that her loyalties lie not with schools, teachers, or students, but with the billionaires who benefit from the Trump Administration’s tax cuts. Devos is an outspoken proponent of school choice programs. Her attempts to allocate Education Department funds to charter schools, magnet schools, and private school vouchers have thus far had mixed success. Nonetheless, DeVos’s proposed cut of $9 billion to the Education Department’s budget is a giant slap in the face to teachers who know that their schools and their students need more.
“[Trump] puts people at the heads of departments so that they can destroy the department,” Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis told the Current. “He put someone in there that cares nothing about public education and [DeVos] has shown that repeatedly.
“She is an embarrassment; she is a joke. She should be out. We’re gonna do everything we can to keep public schools going around her.”
The 2018 AFT Convention comes at a crucial time, as much of the discussion at the event looked back at the June 25 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and forward to the November elections.
The Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME means that labor unions can no longer collect agency fees from government employees that choose not to join a union but still benefit from collective bargaining. The ruling is expected to have an outsized impact on the funding of teachers unions like AFT.
“No matter what they’re trying to do to destroy unions, it just has steeled us more in the power of unions in working together to make sure they stay strong,” said Esposito-Visgitis. “Teachers unions are absolutely here to stay.”
Even though the march centered around the need for funding in public schools, the event’s speakers touched upon many other issues facing our nation’s youth inside and outside of schools today. Pennsylvania Rep. Ed Gainey talked about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, while AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker spoke about the need for common-sense gun safety legislation. Speakers mentioned 17-year-old-police-shooting victim Antwon Rose’s name on several occasions.
Student Nia Arrington, who attends Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts High School and Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, student who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School In Parkland, Fla., both shared their experiences as young, black women in the public school system. Arrington told the crowd that she didn’t have a single teacher that looked like her until she was 17-years-old.
Ho-Shing says she has gotten to see first hand the immense sacrifices that some teachers have made for their students.
“No teacher should be hovering over children hiding in a corner like my teacher did.” she said. “Yet, they refuse to pay you guys properly.”
As Ho-Shing spoke near the Rachel Carson Bridge, fireworks erupted at nearby PNC Park. Ho-Shing was visibly shaken by the unexpected noise and took a minute to gather herself. The crowd cheered her on in reassurance, before she continued to speak.
“I can no longer listen to fireworks,” Ho-Shing explained. “On the Fourth of July I had to wear sound-proof headphones. I can no longer go to my family’s cookout anymore, because the system has failed us.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten spoke immediately following Arrington and Ho-Shing.
“They are speaking truth to us and sometimes even we feel anguished by their truth,” Weingarten said. “But the fact that we are all here on the streets of Pittsburgh in front of a school that needed to be better, that is the strength of our partnership to fight for equitable, fair, caring, compassionate, well-funded public education for all of them.”
Weingarten then turned the crowd’s focus to the upcoming elections, saying that students need teachers to do more than teach, they need their teachers to rally and to vote, too.
“We need to have pro-public education people in office,” Weingarten said. “We need to have people in office who understand that guns to not belong in schools and we need to have people in office that understand that respect and dignity means respect and dignity for everyone.”