February 12, 2017
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that a president with no political experience saw no issue with appointing an Education Secretary who has absolutely no experience with public education. Despite that lack of experience, and after a bitter battle in the confirmation hearings this week, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the head of our educational system in the United States.
I have a great many concerns about this, as her appointment will directly affect my students and me. Never mind that her confirmation came after she and her family made great contributions to many of the senators who voted on her behalf, which means she essentially funded her own nomination. Never mind that in the hearings, she was unable to respond to the simplest of education policy questions, such as the distinction between growth and proficiency. Never mind her stance against Common Core—a whole issue in its own right, worthy of deeper discussion in a later post. Never mind that she has never ‘walked a mile’, let alone a step, in the shoes of hard-working educators all over the country.
There are a lot of issues, but one of the biggest ones is her staunch advocacy of School Choice. School Choice sounds great, and in theory, it’s meant to level the playing field. It’s meant to make underperforming schools ‘step up to the plate’ and to allow underprivileged students access to better schools than those in their own backyard, often in the form of charter or voucher schools. Parents ought to have a say in where their kids go to school, and should be able to send their kids to the best schools, even if that’s not the one in their neighborhood. In theory—a great idea. In reality, not so much. School Choice, and what that looks like on paper, doesn’t play out in reality. From a position of privilege, perhaps that’s difficult to see, but then again if the one has never walked a mile in those shoes, the inherent design flaws are not immediately evident.
Students can still be denied access to private or voucher schools, so “School Choice” can translate into options for those who have additional monies, and those who are academically advanced and therefore desirable to selective schools who want to boost their academic ratings, but that does not mean that those schools have to accept students who might lower their school’s test scores—it’s bad for publicity, which is often what drives high performing and moneyed students there to begin with. Of course, those students already have those choices now. School Choice, here, doesn’t so easily open new doors to those who don’t fit into those categories—the ones School Choice is supposed to lift up and bolster. The economics of School Choice factor in another way as well. If every student has $12,000 federal dollars which can follow them to the school of their choice, and the private schools charge in excess of that, only those with additional money can foot the bill—just as is the case now. Factor in additional transportation charges on top of that, to travel to schools outside the neighborhood schools, plus books, supplies, and uniforms, and you have yet again an equation that closes School Choice to the ones who could most benefit from it. Those students will be left in the local neighborhood schools, now bereft of the federal dollars which could improve and sustain the improvement to the free public education to which all students should be entitled. If those schools are to be improved so that access to a good education is, in fact, available to all of our children, pulling federal funding out of those schools cripples their ability to make those improvements, effectively widening the divide instead of leveling the playing field.
One of the most troubling issues is that funding following the students means that federal tax dollars will pay for religious schools, since according to the Department of Education, some 76% of private schools have some religious affiliation. This is a basic violation of the separation of Church and State. Parents should certainly be able to teach their kids their own religious and spiritual foundation, but taxpayer dollars should not be required to fund those choices. Setting aside even that fundamental argument, there is the issue of oversight within private schools, which are not beholden to the same degree of transparency as public schools. Private schools, religious and otherwise, do not have to follow the same standards of professional credentialing or curriculum, and are not held to the same testing standards as public schools. This makes it difficult to even tell if sending our tax dollars to those private/voucher schools is an economically sound move that accomplishes the intended outcome of raising our students’ academic performance nationally. I know a great many private school teachers, and many of them are hard-working, dedicated, intelligent individuals. There are certainly high-performing private schools—of that there is no doubt. I don’t want this to devolve into an us-vs.-them argument, because I believe that there are great things going on in some of the private and charter schools. What I do expect, however, is the kind of accountability with our tax dollars for ALL schools that won’t happen if Betsy DeVos’ track record at the state level bears out at the national level.
On Betsy DeVos’ own website, she says “I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world. However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.” She’s been confirmed now, and so far I have yet to hear the specifics, other than devaluing the work of public educators and expounding on the dubious benefits of School Choice. If she is, in fact committed to transforming our education system, I want to see transformation that takes into account some of the real issues facing the students that walk through the public education system daily. I want assurance that the perceived ‘fix’ for our schools isn’t the Pied Piper waltzing out of our public schools and trailing along with her promises of fattened coffers without oversight for only those who have the ability to catch the train and follow.
Instead, meet with teachers. Meet with students where they are. Use those funds to build up public schools and bring them up to speed with the needs we face in today’s society—all schools, not just select ones. Invest in building business partnerships within communities, to bridge theoretical education with practical application. Invest in the kinds of technologies that kids need in order to thrive and succeed in today’s society. Invest in technical and vocational training that help our kids understand complex tasks of the work force of today. Invest in mentorships that promote engagement in education. Invest in the creative and critical thinking that encourages our students to begin thinking about and solving social issues today, and even those issues that haven’t surfaced yet. Invest in an arts education where students can find a voice for their passions, the expressions of their souls. Invest in a humanities education that recognizes our students are not numbers, not inanimate products of a business, but humans who struggle with poverty, depression, teen suicide, violence, financial uncertainty, abuse, language barriers, disabilities, discrimination, and yes, even the real possibility for some of our students of deportation for them or their family members. Take all that money out of the public schools and send it to private schools, and those problems still exist, and in even heavier concentrations in those neighborhood schools. Don’t send our students off scrambling in search of a promise of a better education; give them a better education where they are.
A high-functioning, prosperous democracy depends on an educated populace. It would benefit all of us to make sure all of our children have a strong education. I hope Betsy DeVos goes to school—our public schools—to learn what good teachers are doing day after day, because it’s going to take a real education in order for her to positively effect change for all the children of our nation. I hope she’s ready for it.
Some resources and additional reading: