Early Saturday morning in Hawaii, when Joe Biden secured enough electoral votes to clinch the presidency, Joseph Manfre sent out a tweet.
“Anyone else thrilled we get a new Secretary of Education?” the Honolulu math teacher posted at 7:15 a.m.
Manfre, who teaches algebra and AP Calculus at La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls, said he half-jokingly suggested the name of Jo Boaler, a British mathematics professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education whom he admires. But he said the sentiment behind the tweet was 100% sheer excitement.
“It’s a sigh of relief that we now have a president(-elect) who, even though he doesn’t fully understand education, has a wife who does and is willing to empower people around him who are going to be competent in that position,” he said.
In his acceptance speech later Saturday, Biden said it was “a great day” for educators. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great first lady,” he said.
Locally, many teachers have embraced Biden’s defeat of President Trump as a win for public education and an opportunity to restore some of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ rollbacks of Obama-era student civil rights protections.
“I see (Joe) Biden as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding while we put a lot of these institutions back together,” said Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, a STEM teacher at Ilima Intermediate. She added, “Biden is cool and all but I’m way more pumped for a new secretary of education.”
A Michigan billionaire and Republican donor who was little known before she was tapped for her role in 2017, DeVos has been one of the few Cabinet secretaries to serve under Trump to not quit or be fired during his four-year term.
“Say what you will about her,” Milianta-Laffin said, “but she did change the profile of that position and more people have eyes on it and how powerful that position can be.”
Kaleo Ramos, a teacher at Hawaiian culture-based charter school Halau Ku Mana, said he’s hopeful a new Biden administration will build more “momentum” around the country as far as protections for LGBT youth. Even though on paper Hawaii has a robust anti-discrimination policy protecting LGBT students, he fears for those students who may leave and not have that level of protection elsewhere.
“They’re going to be safe here in Hawaii but what if they decide to go away to college and move?” he said, pointing out they might not be as well-equipped to deal with less open-minded places. “They’re going to feel sheltered.”
Biden has pledged to funnel billions of dollars in new education spending during the pandemic, choose an educator as his secretary of education and give schools clearer guidelines on reopening — a political flashpoint earlier in the year when Trump insisted that schools reopen in the fall.
DeVos also pushed, unsuccessfully, to have states give a greater portion of $13.5 billion they received in CARES Act funding to private schools than what was intended by Congress.
State Rep. Amy Perruso, a former social studies teacher at Mililani High, said the CARES Act example illustrates the “impulse that has been ever-present” in DeVos: “to use public monies for private education.”
“I feel like the last four years were an absolute attack on public education,” she said. “I think we’re finally going to have an administration that values public education, that’s willing to invest in public education, and not try and dismantle it.”
Some teachers are also excited that the election outcome is raising the visibility of education right now.
“I’m just pumped that anyone is mentioning education again,” said Milianta-Laffin. “My students of color will be better cared for in this administration, and our policies will need to reflect that and that gets me excited.”
Jason Duncan, a U.S. history and AP government teacher at Mililani High, said despite its more drawn-out nature, he has used this election as a jumping off point for discussion just like any another election.
“I do feel my role is to stay neutral in these political conversations,” he said. “Kids, they have a lot to say, and have well-formulated opinions, and I think that intellectual safety you provide in the classroom to express views and opinions is crucial as an educator.”
Amid the toxicity that surrounds much of the political climate right now, Duncan said he wants his students to approach discussion of issues with civility, respect and evidence-based reasoning.
“I think what we’re doing as educators is help make sense of the world,” he said. “For students, politics at any time and media are very confusing, so giving them the tools to kind of understand and analyze everything, from media bias to political perspectives, is a very powerful and necessary tool.”
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