Holding a megaphone in one hand and a “No 2 DeVos” sign in the other, Will Kelley expressed incredulity that, as a high school teacher in Tennessee, he has more public education experience than the next possible U.S. secretary of education.

“(My students) deserve a quality public education. They deserve someone who knows what they’re doing. I deserve a boss who knows what they’re doing. Betsy DeVos has no clue what she’s doing,” said Kelley, who teaches history at Kirby High School in Memphis.

Kelley was among about 100 educators and parents who gathered Monday afternoon outside U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office in downtown Memphis to protest DeVos’s nomination on the eve of her confirmation vote by a Senate panel he chairs. Other protests were held in Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville.

Kirby High School teacher Will Kelley speaks out.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

The Memphis demonstration was organized by a group of education and civil rights organizations calling themselves the Tennessee Organizers Against Betsy DeVos. They include the United Education Association of Shelby County, Tennessee PTA, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, and Black Lives Matter Memphis.

President Donald Trump’s choice of DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education has been among his most contentious cabinet picks. In Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month, the Michigan billionaire acknowledged that she has little to no direct experience in public education.

As such, many educators and parents have said DeVos is unqualified because her only connection to public education has been advocacy and philanthropy — not as a parent, teacher or administrator. But school choice advocates have praised her philanthropy to expand charter schools and private school vouchers in Michigan.

Alexander has called DeVos an “excellent choice” and indicated that he will support her. The Tennessee Republican is himself a former U.S. secretary of education, from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Alexander said there is value in an education secretary who is not entrenched in the system.

“I recruited David Kearns, the head of Xerox to be deputy secretary when I was education secretary,” Alexander told senators. “He used to tell me it was difficult to reform public education from within. She is from outside public education in that sense, just as David Kearns was and does anyone really expect President Trump to appoint someone from the education establishment to be education secretary?”

Read more about her legacy in Michigan. Can Betsy DeVos be blamed for the state of Detroit’s schools? What you need to know

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said DeVos’s support of vouchers and for-profit charter operators in Michigan is a threat to traditional school funding and strong accountability for charter schools.

Pamela Moses, co-founder of Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter, speaks at Monday’s rally.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

“School choice is really an illusion,” Rucker said. “In her home state of Michigan, the results of the overall test scores for charter schools are lower than traditional public schools. That is an injustice to our students and our communities. And that is an injustice that we cannot afford to risk with America’s public education system.”

Pamela Moses, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Memphis, said she fears DeVos would divert funding from public schools, and that a decreased investment in schools would lead to an increase in crime.

“When they close the schools down, the neighborhood starts to deteriorate. When the neighborhood starts to deteriorate, the blight and the crime comes in,” Moses said.

Across the nation, Senate offices have been swamped with calls, emails and letters criticizing Trump’s pick on education. Despite the pushback, DeVos is likely to be confirmed by the full Senate. She only needs Republican support, and the GOP controls the U.S. Senate 52 to 48.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Sen. Alexander’s remarks Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.