LeVar Burton, Literacy Advocate and DeVos Critic, Wins NEA Award
By guest blogger Stephen Sawchuk
Literacy advocate and actor LeVar Burton hammered on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' plans for public education as he accepted the annual "Friend of Education" award from the National Education Association July 3.
In particular, he took aim at her support for a proposal to allow $1 billion of federal funds earmarked for needy children to follow students to any public school of their choice.
"I am not a fan of Betsy DeVos," Burton said. "The last thing I believe that we should be doing is taking money from the already strapped public education sector and use it to fund essentially private institutions that aren't beholden to the rules, the regulations, and the transparency we have come to expect in this country.
"I thought at one point that NCLB was the most inadvised government policy in the history of government policies, but I was wrong. Because Betsy wants to take it one step further."
Needless to say, this was all well-received by thousands of cheering NEA delegates.
Burton, best known for roles in the miniseries Roots and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for the television program Reading Rainbow, which brought books to young readers, graciously took some questions from the press before going up to accept his award. I asked what he'd prefer to see in an education secretary.
First, "She should have experience in the classroom. This is not rocket science. This is basic stuff," he said.
DeVos' inexperience and connections to the student-loan industry "makes people very skeptical that government is really working for them," he said.
Burton was excited to talk about his most recent project, a new podcast for adults in which he reads short fiction across a variety of genres.
What's the goal of the podcast, I wanted to know.
"I don't know," Burton said, though he's clearly thrilled about all the possibilities. "I love reading, I love reading aloud. It's an ideal arena in which to engage in pure storytelling."
In a distinction from audiobooks, which are merely read aloud, Burton's book podcast includes music and sound effects as well.
"As adults we don't get read to a lot. That itch, that impulse in us doesn't go away. It doesn't get served, it doesn't get fed," he said. "Podcasting provides a vehicle for that."
Photo: LeVar Burton smiles as National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García introduces him. Photo courtesy of NEA.