Prominent figures across education expressed outrage and frustration with President Donald Trump’s encouragement of an angry mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, including the resignation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
What is usually a dull procedural moment of Congress counting electoral votes turned violent on Wednesday as pro-Trump insurgents stormed the building, leading to the death of at least four people.
“There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” DeVos wrote in her letter of resignation issued Thursday. “Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us. I believe we each have a moral obligation to exercise good judgement and model the behavior we hope they would emulate. They must know from us that America is greater than what transpired yesterday.”
Many education groups and professors also issued strongly-worded statements condemning the president’s role in the chaos. Among them:
- More than 200 political scientists signed a letter calling for the immediate removal of President Trump from office, either through impeachment or by invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows a president to be removed if deemed unfit for office. “Our profession seeks to understand politics, not engage in it, but we share a commitment to democratic values,” wrote the letter, led by Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College professor. “The President’s actions show he is unwilling or unable to fulfill his oath to protect and defend the Constitution. He should be removed from office immediately before further violence takes place or further damage is done to our democracy.”
- The National Education Association, America’s largest teacher’s union, also issued a statement calling for Trump’s removal. “Our children are witnessing the promise of American Democracy unravel before their eyes—and they’re paying attention,” said the statement, written by NEA president Becky Pringle. “They are seeing the blatant inequities in the treatment of violent insurrectionists who, protected by white privilege, were able to carry out this violent seditious act. And they are seeing a president who instigated that violence and who has fomented racial division from his first days in office face no consequences other than stern rhetoric, or worse, submissive silence.”
- Several college presidents issued Tweets and sent emails to their communities expressing their shock and outrage at the events in Washington. “Law and Order, right. SMH The President of the United States of America literally called for a political coup on our nation's capitol. My Lord,” tweeted A. Zachary Faison Jr., president of Edward Waters College.
In her resignation letter, DeVos makes the case that she and the Trump administration made progress on a range of policy fronts: “We have sparked a national conversation about putting students and parents in charge of education, leading to expanded school choice and education freedom in many states. We have restored the proper federal role by returning power to states, communities, educators, and parents. We have returned due process to our nation's schools and defended the First Amendment rights of students and teachers. We have dramatically improved the way students interact with Federal Student Aid. We have lifted up students by restoring year-round Pell, expanding Second Chance Pell, delivering unprecedented opportunities for students at HBCUs, and so much more.”
Those highlights, she said, have been overshadowed by the Wednesday riot. “Instead, we are left to clean up the mess caused by violent protestors overrunning the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to undermine the people's business,” she wrote.
DeVos has been perhaps the most controversial member of Trump’s cabinet. She barely passed confirmation, with Vice President Pence forced to cast the tie-breaking vote during her Senate hearing four years ago. She has been criticized by many for having little background in education and for taking positions that some saw as at odds with public education. A telling statement issued Thursday by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, consisted of only two words: “Good Riddance.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, seems to be in agreement with DeVos at least when it comes to Trump’s behavior this week. He tweeted: “Our kids deserve better. History has its eyes on us.”
In the midst of the unsettling events, some professors and education groups pointed to resources for teachers seeking to help students put things in context. The American Historical Association, for instance, offered resources for educators on its website. Teaching Tolerance, a project from the Southern Poverty Law Center, offered a guide to “leading conversations after crisis.” And officials from Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit group that encourages viewpoint diversity in higher education, pointed to its resource list for handling political polarization in the classroom.