DeVos vote

Tennessee’s senators aren’t saying how many DeVos calls they got, but it was a lot

PHOTO: twitter@senalexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander fielded calls from constituents on Feb. 3, including calls about Betsy Devos's nomination as secretary of education.

After receiving numerous prompts urging Tennesseans to contact their U.S. senators about Betsy DeVos, many constituents want to know just how many got through before Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker voted to confirm the Michigan billionaire as the nation’s new education chief.

But both senators have refused to say.

One day after casting their votes, Tennessee’s Republican senators dodged questions again about the number of calls to their offices and how many were for or against DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Across the nation, congressional offices were flooded with calls and emails over DeVos, who bungled several questions about public education in her Senate confirmation hearing and became one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks. Alexander and Corker said during the discussion that they welcomed input from their constituents, and numerous groups had rallied stakeholders to provide just that.

But following DeVos’s confirmation in a squeaker vote, only the National Education Association released specifics for members of the country’s largest teachers union who used its online system to voice their opinions. The group, which strongly opposed DeVos’s nomination, reported on Wednesday that 8,500 calls and emails were routed to Alexander and about the same number to Corker.

The NEA count does not include those who called or emailed Tennessee’s senators on their own.

Alexander has been at the forefront of the national debate because he chairs the committee responsible for vetting the president’s nominee for education secretary. Asked Wednesday for a breakdown of the calls, his office released this statement:

“We heard from thousands of people, and I am always glad to hear from people about it. About more than half of the people who called were from outside Tennessee. I took some of the calls myself and talked with teachers and others who called concerned, and I was happy to talk with them,” Alexander said.

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Education Association said the NEA’s online system first asks participants to enter their zip code to direct them to their senators. Though the association can’t guarantee that all correspondence to Alexander and Corker was from Tennesseans, she said members were urged to reach out to their own senators.

A Corker spokeswoman did not give a reason why the senator won’t disclose tallies about DeVos feedback.

“Our office hears from thousands of Tennesseans each week on a wide range of issues,” said a statement from his office. “Senator Corker is aware of every call, letter and email we receive, and as always, he is grateful for input and appreciates his constituents sharing their thoughts with him.”

Alexander also reaffirmed on Wednesday his support for DeVos, who became the first cabinet nominee to require a vice president’s tie-breaking vote.

“Mrs. DeVos cares about children,” Alexander said. “She spent the last 30 years focused on more effective public schools. She spent a lot of her own money trying to help low-income kids have the choice of better schools that wealthy people have, and she believes in local control of education. Now that sounds like the kind of education secretary that any Republican president would appoint, so no one should be surprised by that.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.