About 100 people converged on Verona Park today for a protest organized by a Verona High School student against the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education.
Isabella Williams, a VHS junior, came up with the idea for the rally against DeVos after attending the Women’s March on Washington on January 21. “I strongly oppose her policies,” says Williams, an honors student who is currently taking AP Gov. “I believe that she is unqualified. Neither she nor her kids went to public schools.”
Verona high school, middle school and elementary school students were in the crowd today, as well as Verona public school parents and residents who are educators in other districts. “The whole election has been a big point in my life,” said Ava Vasalani, also a VHS junior. “This is my first protest and the fact that it is in my town is really cool.” The rally was entirely peaceful, with members of the Essex County police department occasionally reminding protesters to stay back of the sidewalks at the Lakeside Avenue entrance to the park so that pedestrians could pass.
Some of the protesters had been at the Women’s March and echoed the chants that were used there, like “This is what democracy looks like.” Charity Dacey, a Verona resident who is the director of Teacher Education Admissions and Retention at Montclair State University, went to the Washington march with her elementary school-age children. “This impacts everybody, urban and suburban,” she said of the DeVos nomination. “The privatization of education puts money above kids.”
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DeVos, who grew up in a wealthy Michigan family and is the daughter-in-law of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, has been a proponent of school choice and voucher programs which, if implemented on the federal level, could drain funding from public education. “She and her family have spent tens of millions of dollars undermining public schools,” said Beth O’Donnell, a parent with children in the Verona public schools. “I care about my education,” said Celia Poueymirou, a VHS junior at the rally. “I want to make sure that education doesn’t revolve around money.”
Several student and parent protestors took issue with statements that DeVos had made at her January 17 confirmation hearing about the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which governs how public schools educate children with disabilities. “Betsy DeVos doesn’t know anything about educating special needs students,” said Monica Taylor, a Verona resident who is an associate professor of teacher education at Montclair State University.
Paula Sandoval, a Verona resident with one child at VHS and another who recently graduated, emigrated to the United States from Colombia. She said her perspective as an immigrant has helped her to understand what could go wrong. “We can’t afford for public education to go down the drain,” she said.
Both of the senators who represent Verona, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, have indicated that they will vote against DeVos, a vote that could come as early as Monday. The Senate appears to be split 50-50, which means that DeVos could be confirmed if Vice President Mike Pence votes as the tie-breaker in her favor. Asked what she would do if DeVos is confirmed, VHS junior Kitty Pagano said, “We’ll just have to keep protesting.”