On a day teachers unions across the U.S. staged protests against the incoming presidential administration, the president of the largest such union — the National Education Association — chose Los Angeles as the venue to deliver a message to President-elect Donald Trump: leave public schools alone.
NEA president Lily Eskelsen García also criticized Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, during a rally at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in west L.A.'s Mar Vista neighborhood, attended by hundreds of teachers, parents, local officials and students.
Eskelsen García and local union leaders ticked off a long list of concerns, ranging from Trump's promise to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants to fears DeVos would promote broad, nationwide expansions of school choice that would undercut funding for public school districts.
And Eskelsen García — who has led the politically-powerful teachers union since 2014 — dismissed DeVos' assurances that, if confirmed, she would leave it to states to decide whether to expand school choice through charter schools or private school voucher programs.
"Even the things [DeVos] has said she would devolve to states scares me, like the rights to special ed services," said Eskelsen García — a reference DeVos' comments at her Senate confirmation hearing this week suggesting enforcement of the federal mandates in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ought to be left to the states. (DeVos later said she "may have confused it.")
"But let me tell you," Eskelsen García continued, "I do not believe she will not try very hard to voucherize and privatize special education funding, Title I funding, English Learner funding — those are the special funds for targeted communities of children who've been underserved by their states. It's why the federal government stepped in."
Fears of "privatization" tie together many of the criticisms teachers unions and Democrats have lobbed at Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos' influence was critical in expanding charter schools. She also led an unsuccessful campaign to create a private school voucher program in the state in 2000.
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos said her support for school choice springs from the belief that "parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child."
"We acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them," DeVos said when pressed by a Democratic Senator. "I am hopeful we can work together to find common ground in ways we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them."
Union leaders said Thursday's rally was planned in response to Trump's comments that have unnerved "immigrants, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, American Muslims, educators, working families, the labor movement, and others."
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos testified "every child in America deserves to be in a safe environment that is free from discrimination," though she later faced tough questions about her involvement in an anti-LGBT charity.
DeVos' confirmation hearing did not address a topic on the minds of many attendees of Wednesday's union-organized protest: Trump's tough talk on illegal immigration. Some estimates show more than 245,000 school-aged children in California are undocumented, and thousands more kids in the state have at least one undocumented parent.
"Kids' parents getting sent to another place … I know a couple of people that are worried about that," said Luna Cruz, 9, a fourth grader at Grand View who attended the rally.
"No one knows what to expect," Eskelsen García said in an interview, "because [Trump] hasn't given any straight answers. He's told rallies, 'I'm going to have mass deportations!' And then he's told quiet, little intimate groups, 'Of course I'm not going to have mass—' who knows?"
After gathering outside Grand View's front gate, attendees at the union-organized rally marched around the block holding signs featuring slogans such as "Escudo Contra Trump/Devos" — meaning, "Shield Against Trump/Devos."
Nearby, one quiet counter-protester stood with signs suggesting the school's campus might not have been an appropriate venue. Nate Wyne's children attend Grand View, and he said he was disappointed to find teachers sent home flyers advertising the event in his kids' take-home folders.
"It should've been done off-property," he said, "and should've been spread through word of mouth or through the community rather than through school channels on school paper with school ink."
"We love the school," Wyne added. "I didn't vote for Trump either, but he is the democratically-elected president, so to do a protest even before he takes office I think sends the wrong message to children about how our system works and how power should be transferred."