Mainers Opposed to Trump’s Education Nominee Deliver Petition to Susan Collins

Jan 31, 2017

The Maine Education Association and others opposed to President Trump’s choice for education secretary delivered about 12,000 signatures to Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office Monday.

Opponents of Betsy DeVos say she’ll destroy public schools in favor of charter schools. But some elected officials in Maine think DeVos will improve education by allowing more choice.

At lunchtime Monday, dozens of Mainers formed a line that started at the front desk in Collins’ Portland office and spilled out into the long, narrow hallway just outside her door. One by one, they implored Collins’ staff to pass on the same message to their boss.

“To vote against what I think is the least-qualified candidate in my lifetime,” says retired teacher Dr. Tom Mikulka.

Mikulka says, if confirmed, DeVos will turn public education into a for-profit enterprise. Gabriel Lane of Biddeford, who waited in line with his toddler son, says he’s also concerned that public education will suffer if DeVos is confirmed.

“Her history is all about lobbying for the benefit of charter organizations. I mean, she’s done nothing except try to make it easier for them to try to take advantage of the taxpayers, to make schools that don’t do anything other than enrich a few sets of people,” he says.

Thousands of Mainers share this opposition to DeVos. About 12,000 signed petitions that Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley delivered to Collins’s office.

Kilby-Chesley says DeVos’ background, from lobbying for charter schools to her own lack of experience attending or enrolling her children in public schools, makes her unacceptable as the nation’s education leader.

“She won’t support public schools. It’s not that we don’t think she will. It’s that we know she won’t,” she says. “Her ideology is all about taking taxpayer money and using it for something other than community public schools.”

People organize in the lobby before going to Susan Collins' office.
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

Dueling letters from elected leaders in all 50 states are urging the U.S. Education Committee to either swiftly reject or confirm DeVos.

Maine Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau and Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing are among those who have signed on in favor. Their letter says that DeVos will empower states and parents to have greater choice in their children’s education.

But the executive director of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, Roger Brainerd, says he sees both points of view.

“We appreciate her support for school choice and charter schools, but she has a much broader support for school choice than we do. Because we’re focused on public school choice as opposed to vouchers and inclusion of religious schools,” he says.

Independent Sen. Angus King says he will oppose DeVos. Mainers like Jackie Oliveri now hope Republican Sen. Susan Collins will follow suit.

“Do we need to fix the system? Of course. Systems always need to change and be fixed. But this is not fixing, this is destroying,” Oliveri says.

Collins has not indicated where she stands on DeVos, whose nomination is scheduled to be taken up by the Education Committee on Tuesday.