Kerr leads in state lawmaker movement opposed to DeVos nomination

Author: John Tomasic - February 1, 2017 - Updated: February 1, 2017

State Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, talking about Betsy DeVos, U.S. education secretary nominee, January 31, 2017. (John Tomasic/ The Colorado Statesman)
State Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, talking about Betsy DeVos, U.S. education secretary nominee, January 31, 2017.
(John Tomasic/ The Colorado Statesman)

State Sen. Andy Kerr fully intends to continue a national state lawmaker pressure campaign in opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat and Jefferson Country school district social studies teacher, sent a letter this week signed by more than 400 state legislators to U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, the leaders of the U.S. Senate education committee that was considering the DeVos nomination.

The letter failed to persuade, for now.

The education committee members voted 12-11 along party lines Tuesday to advance the nomination in the coming weeks to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet opposed DeVos for her track record as an advocate in Michigan, where she supported school choice and charter school efforts, but to little effect, as he argued during a hearing held earlier this month.

DeVos is a billionaire who has dedicated vast sums to school reform efforts and to supporting conservative issue groups and political candidates.

The letter sent by Kerr made similar arguments to those made by Bennet and his Democratic colleagues on the education committee.

“Ms. DeVos has used her vast wealth to influence state legislation and the outcomes of elections to advance policies that have undermined public education and proved harmful to many of our most vulnerable students,” it reads. “[M]eanwhile, she lacks any direct experience with education, instruction, and school system and program administration… Her significant lack of experience leaves her unfamiliar with the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s students, educators, and schools.”

Read the full letter here.

Kerr said he might send another letter to Washington in the coming days. He noted that some Republican members of the U.S. Senate have signaled they’re on the fence about the DeVos confirmation.

“I’ve been approached by a lot of people since the letter went out,” Kerr said. “So we’re continuing to collect signatures and perhaps we’ll send a letter targeted to the people who have said they could change their mind on this nominee.

“We’re just going to make sure people know that there are a lot of state legislators who are unhappy with this pick.”

Kerr said the idea for the letter hatched in December at conference hosted by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) in Washington after Trump announced DeVos as his education secretary nominee. The SiX conference hosts hundreds of progressive state lawmakers to talk priorities and strategy.

Kerr said many of the lawmakers he spoke with at the conference knew very little about DeVos.

“The more we learned, the more it seemed obvious to us that she was unqualified for the position.

“I heard someone on the radio say that the primary reason people were opposing her nomination was because she supports charter schools. You know, that’s absolutely not the case. We oppose her confirmation because every time she answers a question, she demonstrates again how little she knows about public education, that she’s not interested in learning about public education, and — whether its about performance or growth data or school safety — she is just unqualified for a position like this.

“I could name ten Republicans in our (state) Legislature right now who are much more qualified than she is,” Kerr said. “Take (Sen.) Owen Hill. He home schools his children. He’s a big fan of charter schools. He is much more qualified than she is,” he said laughing. “Much more qualified.”

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, has been a top advocate for DeVos in the state. He held a press call Monday touting the nomination. He argued DeVos was an outsider who would shake things up and give greater power to the states to develop approaches to education that best suit students and parents.

Her nomination is “making a lot of folks nervous whose jobs depend on maintaining the status quo in education,” he said, adding that “political polish” was overrated.

He was joined on the call by Mike Miles, who in 2004 ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat and lost in the party primary to then-Attorney General Ken Salazar. On the call, Miles said he thought DeVos was not the privatizing evangelist her critics were making her out to be.

“She supports choice and equity” in education, he said. “That doesn’t make her an enemy of public education.”

Miles is a school reform executive who has made headlines for his business-style school makeover programs. He is the CEO of two public charter schools in the state, the Academy of Advanced Learning, which is set to open in the fall in Aurora, and Pikes Peak Prep in Colorado Springs. Miles bases teacher pay on area expertise and effectiveness. Special reading or math instructors, for example, make more than gym teachers.

As the Senate committee was preparing to vote on the nomination, Miles sent a statement clarifying his position on the politics around the nomination, arguing that feelings about President Trump and his administration so far shouldn’t shape opinions of DeVos’s dedication and experience.

“I’m certainly not a fan of Mr. Trump, far from it,” he wrote. “But Mrs. DeVos is a proven leader who has worked to give every child an opportunity to receive an excellent education.”

Gerard Robinson, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former head of education in Va. and Fla., also praised DeVos on the press call.

At least 20 Colorado state lawmakers, including seven senators, signed onto the Kerr letter making the case against DeVos.

U.S. Senate Democrats will need at least three Republicans to join them in opposing the DeVos nomination to defeat it.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.

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