Many local educators unhappy with Secretary of Education pick

Betsy DeVos, secretary of education nominee for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, speaks during a Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee confirmation hearing on Jan. 17.
Betsy DeVos, secretary of education nominee for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, speaks during a Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee confirmation hearing on Jan. 17. Bloomberg

About five years ago, some Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District board members were in favor of opening a charter school.

The idea was to create an institute that would offer a liberal arts educational experience that focused on individual student interests and educational needs.

Stephen Switala, former P-O Area school board member and current music teacher at Clearfield Area School District, said the idea among the board, at the time, was to dissolve some initiatives under former Superintendent Stephen Benson.

“It seemed like an alternative opportunity would provide our kids (with) what was going to be missing at P-O,” Switala said.

But despite Switala being in favor of the 2012 charter school option, he’s not in favor of the newly named Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — a billionaire advocate of school choice — stating, “money and influence has no place in education.”

“After years of reflection, I have realized that students in public schools deserve the best we can offer them, and that competition isn’t in our students’ best interest,” he said. “I believe 100 percent in the success we can have in public education with the focus always being on our students’ best interests.”

It was a similar response among many Centre County educators when asked how the appointment of DeVos could impact local education.

“The fact that DeVos was voted in as the Secretary of Education with little to no backing from educators across the country emulates ignorance and disrespect for the professionals in the field,” said Gene Ruocchio, State High teacher and president of the State College Area Education Association.

Ruocchio said the situation for schools in the commonwealth could be “bleaker” if not for Gov. Tom Wolf’s push for public education. But his main concern is the potential shift of federal monies to families rather than schools as a way to create choice.

“The reduction of the federal funding to traditional public schools means traditional public schools will not be able to adequately meet the needs of the students,” Ruocchio said. “Change is necessary, so we should be investing in our current schools to make those changes, not strip them of funds and watch as they and their students struggle to make it.”

Bellefonte Area school board member Robert Lumley-Sapanski described his thoughts toward DeVos’ appointment Tuesday as “disappointed.”

“I support charter schools that are shown to raise academic standards and are accountable to the local schools and the public; many however are not, and simply direct millions of tax payers dollars to private firms making a huge profit while pulling funds from the local districts,” he said.

Lumley-Sapanski said there should be options for kids who cannot thrive in traditional public schools, but not for alternative school that have not “shown to improve academic outcomes while siphoning off monies sorely needed for public education especially in providing for our special needs children.”

According to Bellefonte Area Director of Fiscal Affairs Ken Bean, in the 2015-16 school year, the district paid about $12,400 per regular education student and $25,500 per special education student.

There were 123 Bellefonte Area students enrolled in charter schools.

But in order to create change, some educators urge the public to reach out to local representatives.

“While the national level does affect us, the local level makes all the difference,” Wingate Elementary School principal and Bald Eagle Area director of elementary education Jim Orichosky said. “I am a believer in education at the local level and think this conformation, being wrong as it is, will not change the path we are forging in public education in Pennsylvania. I get the chance to live it every day with the amazing teachers, para educators, custodians, cafeteria workers, and all who work in a school day in and day out to help all students.”

The CDT reached out to some charter school administrators who did not respond to comment.

However Levent Kaya, CEO of Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in Fergusion Township, said he believes DeVos could help the push for more charter education given her background.

Other local educators also declined to comment stating the issue is too political to speak on the record about.

“It is my hope that she (does) what’s best for children rather than adhering to any one agenda,” P-O Superintendent Gregg Paladina said in an email.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo