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‘They Deserve So Much’: Special Education Teacher On What DeVos Means For Students

The confirmation of charter school advocate and businesswoman Elisabeth DeVos as US Secretary of Education was arguably a massive blow against public education—with absolutely no background in education, 59-year-old DeVos, whose brother is the notorious mercenary Erik Prince, founder of US security firm Blackwater, will likely wreak havoc on a public education system in desperate need of hardened support.

Shadowproof spoke to Taylor Faustino, a 25-year-old education specialist for students with mild to moderate disabilities, about his struggles, how perceptive his students are of the stifling political climate, as well as what DeVos means for educators.

Faustino actively manages cases and accommodates learning for students with what the system describes as “mild” to “moderate” learning disabilities, and speech and language disabilities, as well as with those who do not have individualized education programs.

His first teaching job was in Watts, California, at Markham Middle School for summer school with the Los Angeles Unified School District, after which he was hired at an elementary school where he worked for two years.

“I work in the inner-city in one of the poorest schools in our district,” Faustino shared. “Like the elementary school I worked at, near 100 percent of my students qualify for free breakfast and lunch. The school and surrounding community is about 75-80 percent latinx, 15 percent black, with about equal parts black American and African immigrants/refugees—[especially] from the Congo and Somalia—and 5-10 percent Asian. There are also some students that are refugees from Afghanistan.”

While Faustino is only in his third year of teaching, he said he feels like he has “jumped into a bubble just waiting to burst”.

“There is constant talk amongst teachers about the conditions we work in, about increasing privatization, about [former President Barack] Obama’s “Race to the Top” being bad, even though Obama himself is very popular amongst teachers to be honest, about charters taking our students and funds, and about a growing frustration that we are not being supported.”

Faustino described having to struggle with situations much similar to teachers across the U.S., including being forced into classrooms with overwhelming class sizes, schools being underfunded, watching as special programs like art and elementary physical education are taken away. He indicated they are then made to meet “ridiculous expectations.”

“The expectations are always centered around test scores. That is a major issue. Way too much of our class time and our curriculum is centered around standardized testing.”

“There are so many ways to assess student learning and academic levels,” Faustino added. Assessment is absolutely necessary. But every veteran teacher I’ve met confirms that standardized testing becomes centered as the most legitimate by the education system more and more every year. And this is absolutely connected to education privatization, the rising charter school ‘movement’, and the corporate education reform movement led by people like Michelle Rhee.”

As a special educator, who teaches mostly children of color living in poverty, Faustino has seen the impact of standardized testing, which has punished children for underperforming.

“When we underform when compared with schools in middle and upper class areas, they use our test scores to legitimize further defunding our schools. Then, charter schools are opened up with both district/public and corporate money, and they funnel students there.”

He spoke of a friend, who is a special educator at a charter school nearby. His friend sees students with disabilities regularly pushed by administrators of schools because they are not performing on tests well.

Faustino said, “They can’t quite kick the student out for having disabilities, but they find ways to recommend leaving strongly to the child’s parents. It’s often framed in a way that insinuates they will be expelled and have that expulsion on their permanent record if they don’t leave on their own accord.”

The political climate in the U.S. has not helped Faustino’s students, who are terrified of President Donald Trump. Their fear is so concentrated that they discourage other students from bullying by telling them they are “acting like Trump”.

The day after Trump’s inauguration remains a horrific memory seared into Faustino’s mind.

“Students came to me crying, hugging me and saying goodbye. So many students assumed that they would be deported in the near future. Even students with documents and U.S. citizenship thought this.”

Despite what some believe, children do understand what transpires around them, as is evident by the behavior and language used by Faustino’s students when it comes to not only Trump but Obama.

“When I was teaching elementary school, Obama was president, and kids were very aware of things like deportation. I have had students come to my class in the morning and cry their eyes out because of these issues impact on them and their family. Deportation is like a dark cloud over the community and its constantly terrorizing people here.”

His students are also deeply aware of police violence, and Faustino credits Black Lives Matter (BLM) for this awareness.

“Police violence and occupation is an everyday occurrence, but BLM has given students the language to articulate their resistance and disgust. [Colin] Kaepernick’s actions have also resonated with many students. Some students take a knee during the national anthem at our school. Students regularly discuss community violence, shootings, deportations, etc. This is all part of the job and part of living where we live.”

Faustino believes that the intense stratification of the U.S. along racial lines is also important to mention when it comes to the education system, and children are becoming more aware of these harsh realities.

On one occasion during a lesson and discussion on the civil rights movement, students commented on the terrible nature of segregation. Then, “a very introspective student asked, “If segregation is done, how come we don’t got white kids at our school?” It was a damn good question.

“In terms of why the state is reluctant to fund schools, I think that is a much larger conversation about capitalism and neoliberalism. But their goal is to tap into education as potentially massive new market.”

“Companies like Pearson profit from standardized testing and then funnel that money into the political sphere to encourage more neoliberalism and standardized testing,” according to Faustino. “This is part of a much larger issue, and we see it in many industries and systems within capitalism. Their goal is to defund public education, then use standardized test scores as proof that these defunded schools are not working, then use that to legitimize further defunding. Charters, TFA [Teach For America], vouchers, private school and other neoliberal measures are then put forth as solutions.”

A revolution in public education is needed to address this pressing situation.

“The education system is oppressive. It is structured to make kids good, obedient workers and it centers whiteness. There are a million critiques to put forth, but none of them should involve shaming public school teachers, our unions or the concept of public education for every child. In their most coercive moments, organizations like Teach For America use the very real problems of an education system that marginalizes and oppresses poor students to push for charters and neoliberalism.”

Teachers in the U.S. have been forced to confront innumerable obstacles, and now DeVos is posed to become a new addition.

To Faustino, DeVos represents the absolute worst that neoliberal education reform has to offer. She despises public education, with a record that demonstrates this clearly. “The day she was confirmed, it was all teachers could talk about. Her lack of knowledge when it comes to education isn’t as concerning as her privatization goals, but it’s still pretty significant.”

“I don’t know if people outside of education understand this, but the fact that she didn’t know about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is shocking. As a special educator, I literally work under the guidelines and policies put forth in IDEA on a daily basis. It is one of the most important education policies in recent history. You don’t have to have a PhD in education to know about it.”

Faustino’s major concern about DeVos is that she represents the most extreme form of the neoliberal, corporate education reform movement, a movement that includes liberal factions that have remained silent because they know that DeVos is an ally. TFA, which “pays a lot of lip service to progressive ideals of diversity and equity, put a very weak set of suggestions for DeVos. They did just enough to quiet down their liberal supporters, while doing nothing to genuinely critique her overall policy proposals.”

In light of DeVos’s induction into Trump’s cabinet of right-wing ideologues, the possibility of a national teachers strike is now on the horizon.

“I’ve said it before,” Faustino emphasized, “but teachers are the largest unionized workforce in the United States of America. We are a sleeping giant and we can only be beaten down for so long. A major fear amongst those of us teaching in poor communities is that DeVos and Trump will take away our Title I funding, [which is] terrifying because for schools like ours the only reason we are able to keep the tips of our noses above water to breathe is because of these funds. The only reasons our kids have any materials to learn from at all are because these funds exist.”

Despite the obstacles that lay ahead, Faustino’s students, or his “children” as he so often calls them, have given him hope. “They aren’t going to give up their futures without a fight. They constantly ask questions, and Trump’s presidency is awakening a whole new generation of young brown and black folks in the hood to radically question the political system. They continue to laugh, dance, learn, and love. Even in my deepest moments of despair, their lives and their futures demand I don’t give up this struggle. They deserve so much.”

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at