As people began trickling onto the Mall in Washington on Saturday morning, Massachusetts teacher Jeff Maxwell looked around and told those nearby that he felt like the day would be history in the making.
Nolan, his 10-year-old son, had bragged to his friends when his mom attended the Women’s March after President Trump’s inauguration, and then he had asked his dad when he could go to a march, too.
So the family of four drove down Friday night to join those seeking to be heard at the “March for Public Education,” a rally and protest of the Trump administration’s efforts to cut federal education funding and expand private-school vouchers.
“I love a good road tip, but this one’s special,” said Maxwell, who was sporting a “Schoolhouse Rock!” T-shirt while standing next to his wife, Melissa Maxwell, 41, who was wearing a “Nasty scientist” T-shirt, and their two sons, Nolan and Garrett, 7.
Teachers, current and retired, parents, students, and their families began converging about 10 a.m. near the Washington Monument to march in support of public education. Similar marches took place in 11 cities nationwide, including Detroit, Austin, Miami and Lincoln, Neb., according to the march’s website.
Organizers say they are marching for equitable education funding, in support of college affordability and against the nearly 14 percent cuts to education that Trump has proposed. Hundreds of people joined the march in Washington despite temperatures climbing into the 90s and a heat advisory from the National Weather Service.
During a morning rally, protesters heard from students and national education advocates before marching to the Education Department offices about noon. Saturday’s protest was planned to coincide with a national meeting in the District of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union.
“It’s a march for educational justice,” said march co-chair Pavithra Nagarajan, a former teacher now studying for a doctorate at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Nagarajan and co-chair Steve Ciprani, a high school social studies and Latin teacher in West Chester, Pa., said that in addition to advocating policy change and encouraging attendees to reach out to their elected representatives, they hope students and young children not yet in school become “little activists in training.”
“Creating socially conscious young people are at the heart of this march,” Nagarajan said.
Patrice Kelly, 37, is not a teacher, but she brought her 10-year-old daughter Niya Harrod along to the march in hopes that she would see that the policies she overhears her mother complaining about affect others, too.
“If she’s going to believe in something, I want her to be active and be an activist,” Kelly said of her daughter, who stood next to her in front of the Education Department building holding a sign that said “Make America Smart Again.”
As protesters marched along Independence Avenue from the Mall to the Education Department, calling education a “human right” and chanting that Education Secretary “Betsy DeVos has got to go,” vehicles honked in approval and buses of tourists cheered in support.
DeVos has long been assailed by some teachers and parents for her support of school vouchers and charter schools, which they see as taking away resources from public schools. DeVos has pushed back, saying she supports public schools but wants parents to have more choices in the schools their children attend.
Rebecca Cokley said it is depressing to see the unraveling of the progress she helped make while working in various roles at the Education and Health and Human Services departments and the White House under President Barack Obama.
Cokley told the crowd she has watched the Trump administration “pry the teeth out of civil rights statutes one by one like a demented sort of dentist.”
“I adamantly protest the idea that vouchers and choice are good for disabled students. Vouchers and choice are segregation,” Cokley, the former executive director of the National Council on Disability, said to cheers.
Organizers said earlier that they hoped the march would send a message that public education is essential to democracy. But 10th-grade teacher Laura Brown was thinking about how the divisiveness of the democratic process during the presidential campaign had seeped into her classroom in ways unexpected.
The social studies teacher from Liverpool, N.Y., had come to the march with her 8-year-old daughter Ruby. She recalled how one of her students had turned to a classmate of Indian descent and said he wished he could tell foreigners to get out.
“They were surrounded by all this inappropriate language, and they didn’t know how to handle it,” Brown, 44, said. “It was our job to help them figure out how to navigate this brave new world.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sanaa Abrar said she was bullied in middle school for being Muslim and Pakistani. One day, she finally cracked and cried to her mom about never wanting to speak to those students again. When the 25-year-old master’s student studying at American University took the stage Saturday, she remembered what her mom had asked her that day: If you don’t talk to them, how are they going to learn?
So Abrar, who is a senior policy fellow for the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream, stood in front of the microphone and told the crowd, “I am proud to be an immigrant, and no matter what Donald Trump or the extremists have to say, I am here to stay.”
The crown later joined her in chanting, “Here to stay.”