Teacher's union leader: DeVos is 'a cautionary tale' of presidential impact on public education

The president of one of the largest teacher’s unions in the country on Monday said that even though she thinks Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosFree college won't revive the liberal arts Klobuchar rolls out seven-figure ad buy in Nevada Five things to watch in Trump's budget proposal MORE has continued to target public schools, she credits the backlash for DeVos's appointment for helping to highlight national concerns over public education.

“We have really one person to thank for lifting that up,” National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García said, referring to public education.

“So I want to give a shout out to Betsy DeVos for showing us the cautionary tale of what happens when you get a president who puts someone as the secretary of Education,” she added. “She’s never stepped in a public school before she was sworn in.”

García added that she thought DeVos has done more harm than good, accusing the education secretary of having "abandoned public schools." 

"A lot of folks like Betsy DeVos who have abandoned public schools ... They don’t want to see improvements in public schools, it works to their agenda to underfund them and to make them joyless, horrible places," she said. "We aren’t going to let that happen. We’re going to stick around in those schools no matter what."

Department of Education press secretary Angela Morabito pushed back against García comments, saying that DeVos wants to "see education improve for all students." She also maintained that DeVos's has spent much of her career volunteering in the public school system and that her education plan would "not divert a single penny away" from it.

"Secretary DeVos has said repeatedly that Education Freedom is not about elevating one kind of school over another — it’s about trusting individuals to pursue the educational options that best suit them," Morabito wrote in a statement. 

DeVos, who has regularly championed charter schools, has recently come under intense scrutiny from congressional Democrats, especially when it comes to her handling of students who claim they were defrauded by for-profit colleges. During a tense hearing last week, Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonDemocrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' Clinton advises checking your voter registration during Trump's State of the Union Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley to boycott State of the Union MORE (D-Fla.) rebuked DeVos as "out to destroy public education." 

Over the course of her tenure, DeVos has rolled back on a number of Obama-era education policies, including on student loan debt. This has created a backlog of more than 210,000 claims from students who say they were lied to about their job prospects and credits. Devos, meanwhile, has defended her handling of the department, saying relief should only be given to those who can prove they were financially harmed by these institutions. 

The NEA represents nearly 3 million school educators across the country. Like many teacher's union groups, it has yet to formally endorse a 2020 White House candidate.

Though many decisions are made on a state and local level, García maintained that education is fundamentally a presidential issue, which she says was highlighted in Saturday's 2020 public education forum in Pittsburgh.

The event featured former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Bloomberg campaign: Vandalism at Tennessee office 'echoes language from the Sanders campaign and its supporters' Democratic strategist says Biden 'has to' get second place in Nevada MORE, billionaire Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday Five takeaways from new fundraising reports for 2020 Democrats Buttigieg and Biden haven't invested in any ads in the crucial Super Tuesday states: WSJ analysis MORE, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Bloomberg campaign: Vandalism at Tennessee office 'echoes language from the Sanders campaign and its supporters' Buttigieg to join striking South Carolina McDonald's workers next week MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Bloomberg unveils billboards to troll Trump ahead of campaign stops John Legend joining Warren in South Carolina next week: report MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Prominent Texas Latina endorses Warren Bloomberg campaign: Vandalism at Tennessee office 'echoes language from the Sanders campaign and its supporters' MORE, (I-Vt.) Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Washington Post fact-checker gives Bloomberg 4 Pinocchios for 'deceptive editing' in campaign ad The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday MORE (D-Minn.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetButtigieg expands on climate plan with new proposals 2020 race goes national in sprint to Super Tuesday Toward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates MORE (D-Colo.). Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge MORE (D-N.J.) planned to participate but was unable to attend after coming down with the flu.

The seven candidates fielded questions on everything from teacher pay to charter schools and segregation.

García, who was in attendance at the event, said some of the toughest questions came from the young students in the crowd. 

“There was a little girl there who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, saying ‘I know what schools look like in some of our richest neighborhoods. I don’t live in one of those neighborhoods and I’m not looking for a way to escape my public school, I want to know why my public school doesn’t look like those public schools.'"

She said the forum was fruitful, emphasizing that she hopes teachers will be seen as part of the solution to fixing the public education system in the United States. 

"We believed [the candidates] left learning something," she said. "They let us teach something." 

— Tess Bonn. Updated Tuesday at 10:48 a.m.