“Betsy DeVos just got confirmed as secretary of education.” My colleague, a principal in Brooklyn, glanced at me with worried eyes.
I was at a table full of teachers, and we had been checking Twitter regularly for the last few hours, anticipating the news. What did this appointment mean for the road ahead, and where might teachers fit in?
Though most of the decision-making around education is left up to the states, Secretary of Education DeVos will have a certain level of power. In her new position, DeVos will command the bully pulpit, oversee issues related to higher education, discrimination, data collection and research, and the distribution of federal funds to schools. She will also advise on legislation relating to education as well as implement new laws. Meanwhile, DeVos herself has no prior formal experience working in education.
DeVos’ lack of experience may be worrisome, but it does not mean our education system is doomed. I paused and looked around the table where I sat, and considered what we were doing at that very moment.
I was in Albany, New York’s capital city, with a group of teachers and principals from all over the state. The educators I was there to support had all identified issues that were impacting their schools, written policy proposals to put forward solutions, and traveled hours to the New York State Capitol and State Education Department to advocate for the changes they wanted to see happen.
All day, we had been meeting with state senators, assemblymembers, staffers, and key decision-makers. The educators had pitched their proposals, and pushed back with statistics and research and personal stories whenever they were met with resistance. They walked into policymakers’ offices prepared and determined to do what was needed for their students and their schools. They walked out with meetings scheduled, relationships built, plans for follow-up, and even with a bill based on one of their proposals drafted and sponsored.
These educators showed up to advocate at the state level, where most of the decisions influencing education are made, and because of their preparedness, passion, and persistence, their voices were heard and their proposals were met with enthusiasm.
President Trump recently rescinded the previously established protections for transgender students, a move that impacts schools and children across the country. According to the New York Times, DeVos at first hesitated at signing off on the removal of these protections because of the harm that it would cause students. She eventually relented and signed, but her initial reservations are significant: There is space for debate. There is space for educators to weigh in on the issues that will impact their schools and students. And their voices may result in change.
Educators, now is the time to advocate. Call your representatives. Solicit meetings with them and bring forward issues you want to see addressed and solutions you want implemented. Testify, write op-eds, tweet—anything to get your voices heard and your messages out there.
Be prepared—know what bills have been proposed and how they may impact your school and community. Be passionate—share your personal stories about why these issues matter. Be persistent—don’t take no for an answer and keep following up. Many organizations exist to support educators in these endeavors!
Most importantly, be present. To have your voices heard and changes made, you have to show up. Let’s remember where the real power comes from: the people.