Education's DeVos, unions need to find way to bridge divide and work together
© Greg Nash

Following the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education, Lily Eskelsen García, president of the country’s largest labor union, the National Education Association (NEA), declared: “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”

While this comes as no surprise with teachers’ union leaders having called on the Senate to reject DeVos’ nomination for months without success, it is disappointing and does not serve students or teachers well.


Her nomination, much like the presidential election, reaffirmed deep divisions and exposed confusion about the role of the Department of Education. Worse still, it revealed how little middle ground is left where adults who disagree can come together to solve problems.


Not only are there educators who support Secretary DeVos, those who do disagree with the administration need the opportunity to dialogue with her and other officials. The list of who teachers can work with cannot be limited to those endorsed by the unions. The NEA long ago stopped serving educators who support or remain open to reform, but their current behavior disenfranchises those educators who disagree or remain unconvinced by reform proposals, but want to listen, learn, consider, counter, and compromise in order to solve real problems.

The professional educator voice is vital to more than education policy. Teachers witness firsthand many of the issues raised during the election, including immigration, health care, discrimination, drug abuse, budget crises, pension shortfalls — they are taxpayers, parents, patients, consumers, voters, and volunteers. The partisan, zero-sum tactics of union leaders should not discourage teachers from seeking a relationship with the local, state, and federal representatives who can impact what happens in classrooms.

Make no mistake, educators cannot afford to be a rubber stamp to policy proposals of any official, but our students can never afford for educators to disengage either. The teachers union’s “no relationship” position risks continued devaluation of the educator voice—robbing policymakers of the vital input of America’s teaching corps.

At the Association of American Educators (AAE), a non-profit, non-union professional educator association founded over 20 years ago as an alternative to the unions, we stand ready and willing to work with all elected and appointed officials, including Secretary DeVos, to support what AAE members and millions of educators nationwide do every day: serve and educate students, solve stubborn and complex problems, collaborate professionally with parents and the community, encourage and inspire fellow educators, and change lives.

We must preserve the professional and collaborative dialogue that make even the most intimidating challenges surmountable. Maintaining civil and professional dialogue is not an easy task, of course, but in the words of inspiring immigrant and public school educator Jaime Escalante, “The future is created through hard work.”

The union is out of step with even their political allies on this issue. Following a speech in which Secretary DeVos called for diversity and inclusion, collaboration, and civility, the union proudly organized a protest that prevented the new secretary from visiting a Washington, D.C., public school, albeit briefly. Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package For the sake of equity, reopen schools — digitally, with exceptions It's up to local leaders: An Iowa perspective on reopening schools MORE, President Obama’s first secretary of Education, implored the protestors in a tweet, “Please let her in.” Senator Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTina Smith wins Democratic Senate primary in Minnesota Poll: Tina Smith's lead over probable GOP challenger within margin of error in Minnesota Senate race CNN publishes first Al Franken op-ed since resignation MORE (D-Minn), who voted against Secretary DeVos, agreed on CNN’s “State of the Nation” that she should not have been prevented from entering a school.

On Monday, America celebrated Washington’s Birthday, colloquially known as President’s Day, recognizing the 44 Americans who have served as president (Cleveland served twice). George Washington was elected unanimously in 1788, but the victor in nearly 40 percent of presidential elections since 1824 won without a majority of voter support, including Lincoln, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Clinton, and Trump.

Passionate disagreement is simply part of America’s greatness. Political victory introduces the winner to the great challenges and responsibilities of office. Political defeat reminds the bested of the tremendous freedoms protecting dissent, especially the freedoms of speech, association, and press.

As a testament to that history, let us call on the better angels of our nature. We must learn how to solve problems, work together, debate, compromise, and disagree passionately in a country that remains sharply divided on many issues, but faces problems too important to encourage disengagement — and who better to teach us how than America’s devoted educators?

Colin Sharkey is executive vice president of the Association of American Educators, a non-union professional educator association committed to a teaching profession that is student-oriented, well-respected, and personally fulfilling.

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