Menendez Tells Personal Story of Importance of Public Education to Urge GOP to Listen to Constituents and Vote ‘No’
Menendez Tells Personal Story of Importance of Public Education to Urge GOP to Listen to Constituents and Vote ‘No’
Democrats holding Senate floor for 24 hours
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The product of New Jersey’s public schools, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez spoke on the Senate floor tonight about why he is opposed to the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.
His remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“I rise today a product of New Jersey public schools. The son of Cuban refugees, whose parents left everything behind amid rising tensions and increasing violence as Castro moved to overthrow the government, and who fled their own country in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family in the United States.
“They were the lucky ones. They saw the writing on the wall and got out while they could, before the true brutality of the Castro regime took hold in Cuba. When they arrived here they had nothing more than the promise of a brighter future, if not for them then for their children.
“In so many ways it is the quintessential immigrant story, indeed the quintessential American story. My mother worked as a seamstress in the factories of New Jersey and my father was an itinerant carpenter. We didn’t have a lot of money -- just enough to pay the rent in a small tenement in Union City and put food on the table.
“But that was plenty. It was plenty because my parents knew that living in America gave their children access to a free public education and they always taught us that an education was the key to a better life.
“Growing up I was a quiet kid. I was very studious and got good grades, but I struggled with public speaking. Unfortunately for me, one of the final requirements before I graduated high school was a public speech class. I did all the work, but I refused to actually stand up in front of the class and speak.
“I thought I could get away with it, but my teacher, Gail Harper, had other ideas.
She kept me after class, forcing me to recite short stories, poetry, and speeches I had written after my classmates had left. Eventually she told me that I would be the narrator in a school production – which meant that I would be speaking on stage in front of the entire student body.
“Again, I was inclined to refuse. I’m not sure if there was a more terrifying thought in the world to me. But Miss Harper told me that she knew I could succeed, and that if I refused then she would have no choice but to fail me – and if you knew my late mother, that was not an option.
“So I swallowed my fear, and when I got out there I found that Miss Harper’s work with me had paid off. Not only did I realize that I could do it, but she had instilled in me a hunger to keep working, to get better at speaking in front of people, a skill that I honestly owe my life’s work to.
“For me, Miss Harper was so much more than a teacher. She was a mentor and one of the unsung heroes of our public education system. I am privileged to have had an opportunity to tell her that during her lifetime.
“Thanks to my parents’ commitment and incredible public school teachers like Miss Harper, this product of New Jersey public schools, holding a law degree from Rutgers University – a state institution – and was able to rise from a tenement in Union City to one of 100 United States Senators in a country of over 300 million people.
“I got my start in politics fighting for the public schools in my hometown.
When I was in high school, I was told that I had the grades to be in the senior honors program, but that I had to come up with $200 for the books and materials.
As I’ve said, my family didn’t have a lot of money, and that wasn’t an option for me.
“I raised such a ruckus that they gave me the books, put me in the program, and told me to be quiet. I had friends and classmates in the same position, but didn’t say anything, and they didn’t get in. I didn’t think that was right, so I petitioned to change the school board from being appointed by the mayor to elected by the people. Ultimately, I won that fight and became the youngest school board member in history when I was 20.
“So I understand the promise of public education and I understand the challenges that come with it. I understand the need for parental engagement, and the extraordinary impact that good teachers can have on children’s lives.
“I understand that our schools need access to adequate resources in order to allow every student to reach their full potential, and I understand that we have a long way to go to ensure that we truly do guarantee every child in America equal access to a high quality public education regardless of where they live. Regardless of where they were born.
“Most importantly, I understand that our public education system has formed the foundation upon which the American Dream has been built for generations. It is the great socializing factor of our nation and there is no substitute for it.
“At its core, it is a take all system. It does not care whether you are wealthy or poor, whether your family predates European settlement, came on the Mayflower, or are first generation Americans. It does not care whether you are white, or black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim. It does not care whether you struggle with learning disabilities, or autism, or Down syndrome.
“Our public education system welcomes you in with open arms and adheres to the fundamental principles that all are welcome, all are equal, and all deserve a chance to learn and earn a better life for themselves and their families.
“While we work to improve public education and renew our commitment to our children, we need a partner in the Department of Education that also understands these challenges and shares these values.
“Unfortunately, I do not believe that Betsy DeVos is that candidate. While I do not question her intentions, her limited experience and advocacy for policies that fundamentally undermine public education make her unqualified to be the Secretary of Education.
“Mrs. DeVos has never participated in the public education system that she would be tasked with overseeing, either as a student, or a parent, or a teacher, or an administrator.
“I do not see that fact alone as disqualifying, but coupled with the policies that she has advocated for in her home state of Michigan: pushing for more charter schools while simultaneously working against accountability for them – even as they profit off the backs of our children while showing little improvement in student outcomes; advocating for voucher schemes that put public funding into private schools -- even for families that do not need the additional assistance -- while depriving public schools of vital funding that they depend upon to provide a quality education to every student -- it becomes clear that Mrs. DeVos does not understand that fundamental commitment to American children.
“My concerns about Mrs. DeVos were compounded by the answers she gave in her confirmation hearing before the HELP Committee. Guns have no place in our schools, except in the hands of trained law enforcement personnel tasked with keeping our children safe.
“Yet, when asked if she would do away with gun free school zones if told to do so by the President, Mrs. DeVos – after trying to avoid the question with a non-answer about grizzly bears attacking schools – said that she would ’support the President.’
“I do not believe that it is a role of a cabinet secretary to simply and blindly support the President regardless of how misguided or dangerous an idea might be. Nor do I believe that it is reasonable or responsible to make it easier to bring guns in and around schools where they endanger our children. We must do a better job securing universal background checks and treating mental health issues, but more guns is not the answer.
“Mrs. DeVos also said in her testimony that she believed that compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be left up to the states.
IDEA guarantees a ‘free, appropriate public education’ that is individualized to meet the needs of every student with disabilities.
“When Congress first passed IDEA in 1975, though it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children, it came with a promise that the federal government would cover 40% of the cost to educate those with special needs. Unfortunately, we have not met that obligation, providing less than half of that funding in recent history.
“IDEA is federal, not state, law. It is federal law that needs increased funding and attention from the federal government. When this was pointed out to Mrs. DeVos, she said simply that she ‘may have been confused.’ Our children with disabilities deserve a real federal partner that understands the challenges they face and is committed to getting them the resources that they deserve, not a Secretary of Education who is confused about the federal role in education.
“These are only a few examples of how Mrs. DeVos has shown herself to be unprepared and unqualified for the very serious position to which she has been nominated.
“If confirmed, Mrs. DeVos would take over a multi-billion dollar federal student aid and student loan program that helps American families afford the skyrocketing costs of higher education. I myself was a recipient of Pell Grants and other federal student aid, and would not have been able to afford the cost of a college degree without them. Yet, not only does Mrs. DeVos have no experience with student loans or in managing such a program, she has very little if any engagement with any policy issues pertaining to higher education.
“At a time when trillions of dollars of student debt are acting as a barrier to obtaining a higher education -- hindering a generation of graduates from entering the middle class, and acting as a drag on our economy – we deserve a nominee who understands these issues.
“As we continue to struggle with the best ways to measure student progress and achievement, we deserve a Secretary of Education that understands basic concepts like the difference between proficiency and growth.
“My own experiences have given me incredible faith in the power of our public education system, while Mrs. DeVos has worked only to undermine it. I believe that the federal government can be a strong partner in ensuring a free, quality public education for all students, especially those with disabilities, while Mrs. DeVos seems to think that the federal government should not be involved in these endeavors.
“I believe that guns must remain out of our schools, but Mrs. DeVos seemed to indicate that they could have a place there. Most importantly, I believe that our students, parents, teachers, and educators should be able to trust the person tasked with overseeing them, and the 50,000 New Jerseyans who have reached out to me to oppose her nomination have clearly shown me that she has not earned that trust.
“Here is one example of a constituent who reached out to my office:
“‘Dear Senator, My name is Beth More and I live in your great state of New Jersey in Fanwood in Union County. I am writing today to express my deep opposition to the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As a mother of two boys in our public school system, and one with special needs, I am deeply concerned and troubled by Ms. DeVos’ lack of public school experience.
“‘In fact, the thought of her steering money and funding away from public school is not only a threat to my children, but a threat to the 50 million other children currently receiving a public education. She lacks understanding in even the most basic issues that affect our schools, and that, my Senator, is scary. I urge you to strongly oppose this and tell your other colleagues in the Senate the same.’
“So I implore my colleagues to put politics aside, examine Mrs. DeVos’ qualifications closely, and to be open to the input that you are all receiving from your own constituents like Beth More. If you do, I know that you will all join me in opposing Betsy DeVos’ nomination to be Secretary of Education.”