Education

Bellefonte teachers contact Sen. Toomey, speak out against Betsy DeVos

Donna Smith has been working at Bellefonte Area Middle School for 32 years. She teaches eighth-grade language arts.

But for her, teaching is more than just a job.

Teachers are a different breed. It’s not just a job. It’s our life, our passion

Donna Smith, teacher

“Teachers are a different breed,” Smith said. “It’s not just a job. It’s our life, our passion.”

That’s why she helped spearhead an effort with members of the Bellefonte Area Education Association to reach out to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, regarding his vote in favor of confirming Betsy DeVos as secretary of education — a pick who is reportedly pro-alternative education at a time that teachers, like some of those at Bellefonte Area School District, are fighting for public education.

“The motivation was that I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and teaching is very important for me, and it was very hard to accept,” she said about the DeVos pick. “I wasn’t ready to accept it. I personally felt like I had been punched in the stomach and it was really upsetting. If the vote came down to it, I had some hope he (Toomey) would have been the senator to vote no.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey released a statement Feb. 3 about his vote for Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education

Toomey released a statement Feb. 3 about his vote for DeVos, stating he was in support of the secretary of education because of her experience fighting to ensure “poor children trapped in failing schools have the same opportunities that wealthy and middle class kids already have.”

“She has worked for children, parents and teachers to give low-income children the chance to escape crime and poverty, and let’s face it, too many students are not getting that chance,” Toomey said in a prepared statement. “Their families cannot afford tuition for a private school. Nor can they afford to move to a more affluent neighborhood with a good public school. Because of Betsy’s work to expand charter schools, virtual schools, school choice, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts, hundreds of thousands of children who had been trapped in failing schools have been able to access a quality education.”

But teachers like Smith are pushing to improve public schools.

“I believe in public schools and that we have to stand up for them,” Smith said. “DeVos wants to undermine public schools. Let’s not work to destroy them; let’s work to better them.”

Members of the Bellefonte Area Education Association collaboratively wrote a letter, and took a group photo, to send to Toomey’s offices in Johnstown and Harrisburg

The Bellefonte teacher’s union sent a letter, drafted collaboratively with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, to Toomey’s offices in Johnstown and Harrisburg, along with a photo of union members wearing black.

“I knew so many people — family and friends and teachers — who left voicemails, and emailed, and sent letters, but got no response back,” Smith said. “I felt like he was saying, ‘I don’t need to hear from you,’ like he knew better than us, so I wanted him to see my face, and the faces of the people who contacted him, and that we’re not just a phone call.”

BAEA President Kim Sharp said wearing black was a way to show solidarity with others who opposed the choice of DeVos, and against Toomey’s confirmation vote.

According to the senator’s spokeswoman E.R. Anderson, Toomey received 266 letters or communications from people in Bellefonte specifically regarding DeVos. Responses, she said, have either been sent by mail, or are in process of being sent.

It’s been an organized effort with all hands on deck to answer phone calls, emails and so forth with constituents

E.R. Anderson, Toomey’s spokeswoman

“It’s been an organized effort with all hands on deck to answer phone calls, emails and so forth with constituents,” Anderson said.

If someone or a group of people sends a letter to Toomey by postal service, it first goes to an offsite security location where it is eradicated and checked for substances like anthrax and other chemicals, Anderson said. That process takes about two weeks.

But what participating teachers and supporters hope to help politicians realize is “that this isn’t a partisan issue, but rather a stand that teachers are charged to provide the best education possible for our students every day and that we count on elected officials to support students by protecting public school funding and educational services,” Sharp said.

“Education should always be a top priority of our government,” she added. “The secretary of education should be focused on working with states and public schools to provide students with the best education possible, not attempting to take money from these schools in favor of charter schools.”

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo

Bellefonte Area Education Association letter to Sen. Toomey

February 22, 2017

Dear Senator Toomey,

Each day we are entrusted with our country’s greatest asset: our children. Teaching is a calling and a commitment that we take very seriously. As educated professionals, public school teachers know the realities of what our students and our public schools face each day. When an issue comes up that will impact our students and our abilities to do our jobs, we are vocal.

Unfortunately, politicians are often more concerned about their big campaign contributors, than the voters who elected them. This was never more apparent than with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. It made no sense to vote for a candidate who was not only unqualified to be in charge of the Department of Education, but obviously does not even support public education as an institution.

We tried to make our voice heard, but you refused to listen to us. Our calls were not answered and you made no attempt to reach out to educators to try to explain your decision.

We are the voice for our students, and when you ignored us, you ignored them as well. The members of the Bellefonte Area Education Association want to make sure that you hear us loud and clear. United, we dressed in black as a show of protest against your lack of concern for your constituents and our children. We want you to know that we will remember that you put politics first and ignored the voters and our students.

Signed,

Members of the Bellefonte Area Education Association and Other Supporters of Public Education

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