We speak with two award-winning teachers who are trying to teach Trump a lesson. On Monday, Jessica Dueñas, the 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, and Kelly Holstine, the 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, boycotted a White House ceremony honoring them and other state winners of the award in protest of the Trump administration’s education policies. But Dueñas and Holstine skipped the event to register their opposition to Trump’s policies on immigration, education and LGBTQ rights, saying many of the White House policies directly impact their immigrant and refugee students.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to two award-winning teachers who are trying to teach Trump a lesson. On Monday, Jessica Dueñas, the 2019 Kentucky state Teacher of the Year, and Kelly Holstine, the 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, boycotted a White House ceremony honoring them and other state winners of the award to protest the Trump administration’s education policies. But Dueñas and Holstine skipped the event to register their opposition to Trump’s policies on immigration, education and LGBTQ rights, saying many of the White House policies directly impact their immigrant and refugee students.
Well, Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with Kelly Holstine, an English high school teacher at Tokata Learning Center in Shakopee, Minnesota, and Jessica Dueñas, a sixth grade special ed teacher at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Louisville, Kentucky. Dueñas is the daughter of a Cuban refugee [father] and a Latina mother who at one point was an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. They joined us from Washington, D.C. I began by asking Kelly Holstine why she decided to boycott the Monday White House ceremony.
KELLY HOLSTINE: I spent a lot of time thinking about this decision. I acknowledged that it’s an honor, that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the White House. And I represent—I mean, I respect that location and the position. And I really respect the folks in our cohort who chose to be a part of that. And I’m very much a believer in freedom of speech, and I support that everyone shows that and demonstrates that right in different ways. And we also want to celebrate the National Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson. And we celebrate and champion and support him.
But we needed to make our own choice about what felt right for us. And for me, I work at a school that is extremely diverse. It’s an alternative high school in Shakopee. And the policies and the words and the actions of this administration show a great deal of discrimination and prejudice and hatred toward the students that I serve. And I could not, in good conscience, even implicitly support people who hate my kids.
Also, as a gender-nonconforming lesbian, there have been—if you look on the GLAAD website, I think, to date, there’s 104 attacks against my community, against my LGBTQ community. And I want to model for my students that even though you can respect someone’s position, you also can have healthy boundaries and decide what’s right for you. I don’t generally go into other people’s homes if I know that they hate me for who I am without ever actually knowing anything about me.
And so, I really want to model for students that they can make those choices for themselves about what feels healthy for them. But at the end of the day, I just—I can’t actively or implicitly support an administration who treats my kids very, very poorly.
AMY GOODMAN: In what way do they do that, Kelly? That’s strong language: You can’t support or didn’t want to meet with people who hate your children. You were going to be meeting with, what, Betsy DeVos, Pence and President Trump.
KELLY HOLSTINE: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: How do they hate your children?
KELLY HOLSTINE: Well, if you look at the words and the actions and the policies, the attacks against LGBTQ people, the attacks against immigrants and refugees and people of the global majority and American Indians and people with disabilities, there are so many statements that are made that are negative. And it also creates an environment and a culture in our country that emboldens people who have that hatred and that fear of others, and it causes those folks to be more verbal with their language.
For example, I have a student who is Muslim, and she’s Somali, and she wears a hijab. And every time she’s in public, people yell at her and call her a terrorist and tell her to go back home. And she is the kindest human I’ve ever met. She gives the best hugs of anyone in the world. She is sweet and sassy and smart, and she is articulate. And she could so easily hate the world because of the way that she’s being treated, and she chooses not to hate the world. She chooses to come from a place of light and love. And I just—I can’t support someone who hates someone like that.
And in my classroom, I really support healthy communication and discussion and differences of opinion. But there has to be ground rules for it to be healthy and productive. So, in my classroom, we respect each other’s opinions, but there’s no space for prejudice or discrimination. And you can’t attack other people.
So, if I were to actually have an open opportunity to talk to members of this administration, to Mr. Trump or Mr. Pence or Ms. DeVos, then I would welcome that, if they would follow the ground rules. And experience has taught us that there’s a lot of attacking statements, there’s a lot of prejudice, there’s a lot of discrimination. I wouldn’t expect my students to participate in a conversation like that, because it’s not healthy, and it’s not productive.
AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Dueñas, can you talk about—
JESSICA DUEÑAS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —the decision you made, once you got this really incredible honor to be the 2019 Teacher of the Year of Kentucky, then coming to Washington and deciding not to meet with President Trump and Vice President Pence and the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?
JESSICA DUEÑAS: Absolutely. So, when I first learned that I won the award, I was informed that I would have the honor of meeting the president and, you know, members of the administration. Like I said, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I chose to miss out on. And there are several reasons why.
First, Kentucky is my adopted home. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I came to Kentucky seven years ago because I married someone from Louisville. And when we divorced two years ago, I could have gone back home, but I felt very rooted in—at that time I was teaching in Oldham County Schools, which is a semirural county outside of Louisville. And I loved my students, and I loved the friendships that I had made and the connections that I made. So, at that point I felt like a Kentuckian. Kentucky is home, even though I don’t have the accent, clearly. But, you know, after seven years, that’s my home.
And as a representative and having the honor to represent this state, one of the biggest issues that Kentucky is facing right now in terms of education is adequately funding our public schools. As you know, Kentucky is a state that struggles a lot financially. We experience a lot of rural poverty, especially if you look at Appalachia and eastern Kentucky, the rural areas, even our urban areas. I live in an urban area. There is vast poverty throughout the state. And it looks very different depending on the area. And so, throughout this state, we have students who lack resources and have incredible barriers to their learning, because their teachers might not have technology or basic materials to enable these students to learn.
And so, if we allow the privatization agenda that the Trump administration is pushing and also the state administration right now in Kentucky is pushing to happen, the funding that is already barely there for our public schools is going to diminish and get even worse. And so, let’s say we suddenly let in these scholarship tax credits. Now these families are able to pull public school funds, that could have helped many children, and take them out into schools that are not really being regulated. For example, if charter schools were to come into Kentucky, because Kentucky right now doesn’t have any charters, you put these charter schools in, suddenly you’re putting teachers that don’t have to be highly qualified educators to teach our children. So, you might have—and, you know, for example, I’m a teacher of students with disabilities. Charter schools don’t necessarily have to take students like the ones that I teach, which are very high-need students. So, for me, I’m very passionate about that.
And the fact that just a few weeks ago Ms. DeVos came to Kentucky to have a conversation about education, a roundtable discussion, and she met with the governor and the commissioner, but there wasn’t a single public school representative there. And students showed up, public school students showed up, who wanted to see what was happening and, I guess, go back to their schools and report it. They were turned away. What a slap in the face to the state of Kentucky from our federal administration! So, how could I, in good faith, representing the state as a state Teacher of the Year, come to Washington, smile and nod and, you know, kind of put on a show for the administration, when the administration couldn’t even respect the state when they sent a representative there.
The second piece to why I did not want to face the administration was, I’m a first-generation American, as you mentioned in my bio. My father, a Cuban refugee, had to cut sugarcane in Cuba for two years without pay, just to be released by the administration back then, so that he could come to this country in search of a better life. My mother entered legally, which is why she was ultimately able to get her citizenship. She entered legally and overstayed her visa to work. And because of the sacrifices that my parents made, I am now a special education teacher of 11 years.
And let’s go back to the civil rights movement. What would it look like to my students if I, their Latina teacher, gets called an animal by the president, and then I have to go shake his hand? What am I—what message am I sending my African-American male students? That when people in power dehumanize you, you smile and nod? Or do I teach them and remind them, “Hey, back in the ’60s, what did Martin Luther King do? He spoke up. What did John Lewis do? He spoke up. What did Rosa Parks do? She spoke up. What did the Freedom Riders do? They spoke up”? And, hey, they went through great consequences.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to turn to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In March, she refused to state whether schools should be allowed to discriminate against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is DeVos being questioned by Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan during testimony before a House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
REP. MARK POCAN: Do you think it’s all right for a school to discriminate based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity?
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: We have laws that cover discriminatory efforts, and our Office for Civil Rights has continued to be very diligent in investigating any allegation of discrimination and will continue to do so.
REP. MARK POCAN: So, is that a yes, or is that a no? I’m trying to get a yes or no, I guess, on that.
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: We follow the law as this body has—
REP. MARK POCAN: So, personally, you don’t have an opinion on it?
EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: —has defined. And—
REP. MARK POCAN: OK. Because you are giving money—it leads me to the next question. You are giving money to some charter schools that do discriminate.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Meanwhile, second lady of the United States Karen Pence is working at a Virginia private school that explicitly bans LGBTQ workers and students. Pence is teaching at the Immanuel Christian School in Washington, D.C.'s suburbs, where an employment application requires job candidates to pledge not to engage in homosexual activity or to violate the, quote, “unique roles of male and female.” The application also advises women that, quote, “A wife is commanded to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ,” unquote. So, Kelly Holstine, could you respond to what DeVos said and also Vice President Pence's wife?
KELLY HOLSTINE: It hurts my heart, because what if a student, while in Mrs. Pence’s care, begins to figure out who they are in this world, and what if they figure out that they’re gay or lesbian or bi or trans, and they look to their teachers for that support and that love and that safety to be who they are? The suicide rate is five times higher for our LGBTQ community than it is for our heterosexual community in youth. And so these youth are going to feel isolated and lonely and unsupported. And that, it really hurts my heart for those youth to be in an environment that is so openly full of hate and discrimination toward something that they have no choice about.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kelly Holstine, the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, and Jessica Dueñas, the 2019 Kentucky state Teacher of the Year. They boycotted the White House ceremony honoring all 50 state winners of the award in protest of the Trump administration.