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In Philadelphia, public-school advocates cringe at DeVos hearing, while school choice supporters see opportunity

The federal government doesn't have much to do with the nitty-gritty of local school policy -  that's up to state governments. But on Tuesday, educators and policymakers in Philadelphia were nonetheless watching Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearing closely -- the Michigan billionaire and school-choice proponent, if confirmed, will ascend to the biggest educational bully pulpit in the country.

And while charter-school advocates said they see opportunity in a DeVos-led Department of Education, public school supporters say the contentious hearing only confirmed their worst fears about education policy under the Trump administration.

DeVos says her education work is dedicated to giving parents a choice in how their children are educated.

"We saw the struggles and sacrifices many of these families face when trying to choose the best educational option for their children," she said in her opening remarks Tuesday. "For me, this was not just an issue of public policy, but of national injustice."

"She should be disqualified as secretary of education," said Councilwoman At-Large Helen Gym, a longtime advocate for public schools in Philadelphia.

Gym said she was concerned when DeVos, asked about the federal law that guarantees disabled children a public-school education, said that issue should be left up to the states. (DeVos later said she "may have confused it" and said schools that receive federal funding must follow federal law.)

Gym was alarmed by DeVos's suggestion that she would follow President-Elect Trump's pledge to eliminate gun-free zones in schools. (DeVos cited a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep out grizzly bears; such a school, she said, might need a gun to protect against "potential grizzlies.") And the councilwoman was dismayed when DeVos, in a tense back-and-forth with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said she did not think public, charter, and private schools should be held to the same standards of accountability.

Clips of all three of those exchanges went viral on Twitter, with tens of thousands of retweets. The grizzlies comment has become something of a meme.

Donna Cooper, the director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a former cabinet member under Gov. Ed Rendell, said she thought DeVos seemed underprepared but performed well at points - "She didn't fight what she didn't know," she said. But Cooper said that support of vouchers tends to make public schools feel as if they are "under attack."

"It's the only way you can justify a measure to get vouchers to pass. I would have no problem if the president had nominated someone who is a critic of the performance of public education, and said, 'We need to change and improve,'" Cooper said. "But in order to argue for vouchers, you have to say this system is not working at all."

And for Deborah Gordon Klehr, who runs the Education Law Center - an advocacy group that focuses on getting public-school services to, among other vulnerable groups, disabled students - DeVos's apparent confusion over the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law protecting disabled students, was disturbing.

"I'm gravely concerned and troubled that the person who would be in charge of education for the country has no familiarity with major important federal law protecting students with disabilities," she said.

At PENNCan, a statewide education advocacy organization that skews pro-charter and pro-school choice, executive director Jonathan Cetel said he believes DeVos is "a principled believer in giving all kids options."

"I absolutely believe she believes in improving public education," he said. "The folks who say otherwise have a very narrow definition of public education."

He said some of the criticism surrounding DeVos was overhyped -- supporting charter schools and school choice are not positions outside the mainstream, he said. "Her philanthropic mission is great charter schools and school choice, two policy pillars we believe in," he said, and added he hoped the nominee could "leverage the power of the office" to advocate for them.

Still, he said, he has some reservations about the nominee - Michigan's charter schools, he said, are not the model he wants Pennsylvania's to follow.

And while he called the grizzly bear quip was a "gotcha question," DeVos stumbled in other responses, Cetel said.

And other school-choice organizations in the state have praised DeVos's selection; the Harrisburg-based REACH organization called the nod a sign of "the upcoming administration's commitment to forge a path toward education reform" when her nomination was announced.

Gym said she and other public-school advocates are prepared for a fight if DeVos is confirmed.

"We have to stand strong on what the federal government's role in education is supposed to be," she said. "Education should not be a partisan issue."