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Deans for Justice and Equity band together in support of public education

Debra Erdley
| Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, 9:36 p.m.

Calling themselves “Deans for Justice and Equity,” 175 education deans from universities in Western Pennsylvania and across the country are demanding a voice in the debate about public education as Donald Trump and his administration prepares to take office.

The declaration was prompted by growing concern over rhetoric from the incoming administration that seemed to attack public education, said Kevin Kumashiro, dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco and a leader of the group.

The unprecedented move by the deans, including representatives of Robert Morris and Duquesne universities and the University of Pittsburgh, marks the third time in recent weeks academicians have joined forces to question the incoming administration's priorities.

Last week, more than 1,200 law professors signed off on a letter asking the Senate to reject Sen. Jeff Sessions' nomination for U.S. attorney general. And last month, some 900 Asian-American scholars signed a collective statement protesting comments from members of Trump's inner circle that suggested the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II provided a precedent for the establishment of a registry for Muslim Americans.

The new declaration to be forwarded to Congress and the Trump administration said public education policy should focus on:

• upholding the role of public schools as central institution to democracy in America;

• strengthening the human and civil rights of all children and youth;

• developing policies, laws and reforms based on sound research and a democratic vision for public education; and

• partnering with colleges and schools of education to meet those goal.

The document's release comes as the Senate prepares for a hearing Tuesday to vet Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump's nominee for education secretary. Many worry that DeVos' oft-stated support for school choice, vouchers and charter schools that funnel funds from school districts could spell more trouble for public education.

“This is a grassroots effort by all of us to show that we're all on the same page,” said Cindy Walker, Duquesne's School of Education dean. “We all know there are issues in education we need to address, but there is this person coming in with little background in public education and we've heard very little about education in this campaign.”

The group of deans is concerned about policy rather than politics, Walker stressed.

While various players in academia were part of the discussion about No Child Left Behind and the Every Child Succeeds Act, Alan Lesgold, who recently retired as dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, said the landscape has changed.

“In those cases, there was some level of across-the-board support for changes, and while I'm sure we all saw potential pitfalls and possibilities for new good work, there wasn't a shared sense of the specific problems that were impending. That's less the case now, and I think it will take time either for confidence to build that normal discussions will lead to good choices or that we'll know for sure that some views are being forced out of the discussion,” said Lesgold, who joined his colleagues in the declaration.

He held out hope that the rhetoric of the campaign will recede as the reality of governing takes hold.

“Some of the extreme positions on the table strike many of us as a bad idea, which is what prompted the letter,” Lesgold said. “At the same time, many of us retain some hope that as we transition from the blunt statements of the election to actual decisions, at least the most extreme possibilities will disappear.”

Mary Ann Rafoth, dean of the School of Education at Robert Morris University, said part of the urgency of the declaration grows out of frustration among professionals in the field that public education has been painted inaccurately in the press.

“That's what prompted the deans to form a coalition to get the facts straight,” Rafoth said. “What is driving this now is, ‘Will there be continued support for public education as we know it?'”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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