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SF school leaders ‘troubled’ with DeVos confirmation

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Betsy DeVos poses for a photo before a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Capitol, Dec. 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
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Public school leaders in San Francisco are concerned over the potential loss of federal funding after the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as secretary of education with a tie-breaking vote Tuesday.

All 48 Democrat senators and two Republicans voted against DeVos, but Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie when he voted in favor of her in a historic move for a vice president. DeVos, 59, is a philanthropist from Michigan who champions school choice.

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“I appreciate the Senate’s diligence and am honored to serve as U.S. Department of Education Secretary,” DeVos said Tuesday on Twitter. “Let’s improve options and outcomes for all U.S. students.”

Her appointment to the Trump administration means that public school districts like the San Francisco Unified School District could lose funding under a voucher program, where the federal government would issue funds to schools based on student enrollment regardless of whether the school is public or private.

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“I’m troubled and upset,” said Board of Education President Shamann Walton. “Not only does she not have insight or expertise in public education, she is out to destroy public education.”

Walton said the SFUSD receives an estimated $60 million a year in federal funding, or less than 10 percent of the annual budget. The funding is used for services including special education and the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

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“As it is, we don’t receive enough money from the federal government to deal with the mandates for special education [or JROTC],” Walton said. “It’s disheartening.”

But Howard Epstein, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Republican Party, does not view the potential shift of funds from public schools to private schools in a negative light.

“It may take money away from public education and send it to the Catholic schools and some of the other private schools, but if they are not doing the job they should not be getting the money,” Epstein said.

Lita Blanc, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said federal funds are important to serving children with special needs. Blanc said the teachers union will be looking into ways to offset the loss of federal dollars locally.

“It’s disappointing there was not one more righteous Republican,” Blanc said. “We will hold [DeVos] accountable and we will hold the senators accountable who appointed her.”

The teachers union joined every member on the school board to denounce DeVos in a letter ahead of her confirmation.

“DeVos and her family for decades have wielded their billions to undermine public education, while promoting private, for-profit schooling with little or no regulation, transparency [or] accountability,” the letter reads.

The letter called on local senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein to vote against DeVos, and both senators have since opposed her.

Harris said she was disappointed the vote fell short and called on DeVos critics to run for school boards and join parent teacher associations.

“We must fight to ensure our kids have access to a first-rate education,” she said Tuesday on Twitter.

Feinstein also criticized DeVos for her relaxed stance on charter schools as well as lack of experience.

“DeVos has not supported appropriate accountability or accreditation standards in charter schools,” Feinstein said on Twitter. “During her hearing, Betsy DeVos did not seem to grasp basic tenets of education policy or program implementation.”

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