Betsy DeVos and the Question of School Choice

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:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/5-things-to-know-about-betsy-devos-trumps-pick-for-education-secretary/508661/

https://www.au.org/church-state/february-2011-church-state/featured/10-reasons-why-private-school-vouchers-should-be

http://www.betsydevos.com/q-a/

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a52934/who-is-betsy-devos-education-secretary-policies/

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/parents-already-face-tough-school-choice-they-want-simplicity-2017-02-07?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo

http://www.nea.org/home/19133.htm

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-betsy-devos-riling-education-advocates-n716491

http://www.scarymommy.com/what-outraged-parents-can-do-to-defend-public-education-after-the-confirmation-of-betsy-devos/?utm_source=FB

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/08/a-sobering-look-at-what-betsy-devos-did-to-education-in-michigan-and-what-she-might-do-as-secretary-of-education/?utm_term=.369acce1cf28

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On This Day

January 20, 2017

Today, perhaps more than any other day, the world will be watching our nation.  The world will be watching us.  With baited breath, we wonder what this new administration will bring.  Now more than ever, what we do matters.  How we respond matters.  Don’t wait; act.  Silence is tacit agreement. Speak. Loudly and often.  We cannot allow our voices to be crushed under the weight of this Brave New World.  If we don’t exercise our democratic right to raise our voices and let our representatives know our hearts, we will lose ground.  We already have.  The march to pick up lost ground begins now.

In his inaugural address, Trump said, “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Do not let anyone tell you it cannot be done.  No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.”

Now arrives the hour of action. Yes.  Now, and for the next four years.  Let’s be willing to put in the time and the energy to show what the heart and fight and spirit of America is really about.

And the Award Goes To…

January 9, 2017

On Sunday night at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep was given the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award and gave what quickly became a polarizing acceptance speech.  In her speech, she exhorted everyone to hold those in power to account on this monumental eve of the changing of the guards in the United States.  She used her spotlight to call attention to our duty and responsibility to question and speak out where we see injustice and to expect our leaders to comport themselves with dignity and compassion.  In part, she said,

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing.  Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

The polarizing aspect of this speech is appalling to me.  I find it difficult to take exception to the idea that we should expect the powerful to use their powers for the benefit of all, rather than to use that power to bully others.  There is a flurry of conversation, however, about the fact that those ‘Hollywood types’ have no business politicizing an entertainment forum; they should just, in essence, ‘shut up and just do their jobs’.  How is it, by virtue of their chosen profession, there are people who seem to have decided that they are not entitled to their opinions?  That they are not entitled to share their opinions?  I am not a politician; I am not a legal analyst or a foreign or domestic policy expert.  I have never held a public office, and yet I am an intelligent, knowledgeable individual with valid opinions and insight.  The stakes are high, and my life, and the lives of all Americans, will be impacted by decisions and actions of our President-elect.  Therefore, my opinion matters.  My voice matters.  Why is it that someone like Meryl Streep, or even Jimmy Fallon, Golden Globes host, isn’t entitled to share their opinions as well?  Streep has a career as an actress; it’s not her sole identity.  It’s not the only thing about which she should be allowed to speak.  She is a citizen, just like you, just like me.  She happens to have a very public forum in which to share her opinions and to use her power—the power of access to audience—to speak to and for those who don’t have that privilege.  She is, in fact, modeling exactly what she wishes to see in the leader of her country:  to use her power to model the way in which power should be used in order to benefit others who don’t have a voice.  She did so with grace and clarity, without resorting to name-calling.  Trump, on the other hand, took to Twitter, which is apparently his primary means of communication, to call Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” who is a “Hillary flunky who lost big”.

Streep’s speech was a bold one, because as she was exercising her First Amendment right of free speech, she knew that she was risking losing fans who did not agree with her politics—movie goers who have the right to spend their hard-earned cash at the box office and to speak with their dollars.  She knew that she risked alienating those who did not agree with her views—and she did it anyway.  We HAVE to be willing to put ourselves on the line and speak up for what we believe in, lest our silence be taken for tacit agreement.  So as our President-elect is pushing forward confirmation hearings on a slate of appointed officials who have not yet completed the standard ethics review process, and as Senator Paul Ryan is pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, effectively limiting access to reproductive health and cancer screenings for people who are historically underserved and underrepresented, it is our responsibility to speak out, call our government representatives, and to use our forums no matter how big or small, to continue to hold our government to account.

A Month In…Where Are We Now?

November 27, 2016

It’s been nearly a month since the election, and I’m still struggling with the outcome.  Nearly every day some new alarming piece of information comes to light, and we are left to figure out what it means and how it will impact our future.  I am not one of those who is espousing the #NotMyPresident mantra; just as I felt when President Obama was elected and folks complained and protested and lamented, I believe that embittered divisiveness is counterproductive for all of us.  Yes, my friends, there was protesting and loud lamentation when the votes were tallied for Obama, much as many Trump supporters would love to ignore. And yes, I understand why people get behind the #NotMyPresident movement; it’s just that I think the deed is done, and what must be done now is to be watchful and proactive of the potential ramifications, rather than choose not to acknowledge the reality in which we find ourselves.

That reality is this:

We have the appointment of Steve Bannon, a man considered by many to have close ties to racist White Supremacist groups, to Chief Strategist.  We have the appointment of Betsy DeVos, wealthy private school product with no experience or connection to public education to Secretary of Education. Jeff Sessions, known for his racist and anti-LGBT stances, has been appointed Attorney General, causing heightened concern for civil liberties moving forward.  There is a host of other recently appointed and rumored appointees that draw from one of two categories—long-time career politicians that fly in the face of Trump’s “Drain the Swamp” rallying cry, and wealthy political donors and lobbyists with approximately the same amount of experience Trump himself possesses in the political arena.  Now don’t get me wrong; I am frankly relieved to hear that there will be someone with the keys to the playground who’s actually been there before, but it would be a whole lot less concerning if those being invited back to the playground weren’t all part of the same gang that tried to run everyone else out to begin with.

What is most striking about all of these appointments of the good old boys is that Trump supporters, many of whom voted for him on the promise of new ideas and new voices in government, haven’t found themselves betrayed by these appointments.  Similarly, Trump has already backtracked, before even taking office, on his plans to charge Hillary for presumed crimes, his pledge to completely repeal Obamacare, and his vision of the Wall.  Like many, many politicians before him, he has said whatever he needed to say in order to get himself elected, and people fell for the act.

The reality—our reality—is that the populace has perhaps the most important responsibility we’ve ever had.  We must hope, though it seems counterintuitive in this case, for the success of our President-elect, because that is the only way we succeed.  What success looks like for America, for the people, might be much different than what it looks like for a wealthy businessman.  We need to teach our inexperienced leader and his cabinet what we believe success looks like; as in any relationship, we must teach them how we expect to be treated and accept nothing less.  As the fringes have moved center and to the primary seats at the table, we have to make sure we maintain the voices of all, loudly and persistently, especially those who seemingly have been uninvited to the feast.  It would be easy to, with time, forget that the dinner party is going on in our absence, but we simply cannot allow those at the feast to forget that the pantry belongs to us all.

–Donna Lutjens

Claiming My Labels for Myself

November 13, 2016

I don’t know when the word ‘liberal’ (and even more so, the shortened ‘libs’) became an insult, but somehow it has.  Rather than owning a liberal stance, many of our public officials have shied away from proclaiming themselves liberals for fear of alienating more conservative constituents, and the general populace has followed suit.  When someone asks me if I am a liberal, my first instinct is to temper my response because the conservative base has turned that term into something dirty, or at the very least, uneducated.  In reality, the very definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, is one who “believes that government should be active in supporting social and political change” and one who is “not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving”.  Why have we backed away from owning this term?  We are an evolving and changing society; being open to new ideas and social change is something I am proud of.  It is vital to be forward-thinking in our world.  We need to take back the definition of the word and not let someone else define what it means within the scope of our society.  I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself here, but I am a Christian and a liberal, and I’m taking my own labels back.  I am educated, I am smart, I am independent, and my opinions are formed by reading, listening, thinking, challenging, and processing.  I believe in love and support of all people, and I believe that there’s a greater spiritual being than humans out there in the universe.  And that’s what a Christian liberal woman looks like in me.

–Donna Lutjens

Post Election Distress

November 13, 2016

Like much of the United States last Tuesday, I sat riveted to the reported updates of the presidential election.  In disbelief I watched as the unthinkable happened.  As the evening progressed, it became more and more clear that the brash, unpredictable, and volatile Donald Trump would become our 45th president of the United States.

Since then, I have watched the inevitable ‘us versus them’ arguments break out online.  Like a great deal of the rhetoric that preceded the election, they veer, in the vast majority, toward grand, sweeping generalizations and divisiveness.  They all think this; we all think that.  Friendships and families have been broken over the results of the election and people’s support of their chosen candidate.  Tuesday’s election was indeed a historic election, though not historic in the sense we all thought it would be; we have been plunged in the midst of a civil war for the modern age, if not literally, at least figuratively.

“Libs need to get over it and quit being crybabies.”

“We won and they need to get over it.  You didn’t see us protesting when Obama won!”

“Trump says it like it is!”  and also, interestingly, “He didn’t really mean it like that!”

“You can’t hold it against him that he said something you find disrespectful to women in private, many years ago.”

These are just a few of the dismissive and divisive comments I’ve heard, both from friends and strangers over the course of the last week.  This unrest in this great country of ours is not about a temper tantrum because one side didn’t get its way; the unrest stems from a genuine and true fear that many of the people now have in the wake of this election.  We have elected a president who has said he believes in “stop and frisk”, believes in deporting millions, believes in banning Muslims, believes in erecting a wall to keep out Mexicans, believes that he can say anything he wants about women, because ‘if you’re famous, you can get away with it’.  We have elected a vice-president who is firmly anti-LGBT who supports ‘conversion therapy’; we have elected a vice-president who is firmly anti-Planned Parenthood; we have elected a vice-president who believes he should get to decide the reproductive rights of women.  The demonstrations and protests are not about being poor losers in a casual game of baseball; they are about being on the losing side of a privileged majority who has just reasserted its ability to further marginalize and exclude the rights of whole groups of people who have had their voices wrested away.  This isn’t a game in which poor sportsmanship is mildly unbecoming; this is the real world where people’s rights, their dignity, their lives are in danger.

I do not believe that all people who voted for Donald Trump are racist or sexist; that’s exactly the kind of generalized, incendiary comment that I don’t like directed at anyone.  Make no mistake, however, the racists and the sexists have been mightily, dangerously emboldened by this newly elected administration.  The KKK is holding victory rallies, and students are being told at schools by classmates AND teachers that their parents will be sent back to where they came from. Swastikas and racist graffiti have cropped up in alarming numbers.  People have been harassed and assaulted because of their skin color, their religion, their sexual orientation, their gender.  Is this what folks wanted when they said the world was getting too “PC”?  I would hope not. But this is the world we have chosen when we have elected a man who is publicly and unabashedly a bully; you get justification to behave in this way.  Words matter.  And the words of our president-elect matter.  Don’t believe me?  Look at how the men and women of this country have chosen to respond.

I am not naïve.  I know that there was still racism and homophobia and sexism before the election; of course there was.  But many of us, myself included, had allowed ourselves to believe that progress was being made—that we had moved toward a more inclusive and hopeful society.  But in one night, we have moved back our societal clock and eradicated many of the gains our society has seen in the recent past.  I now have friends who fear their marriages will be declared invalid; I have friends who fear seeing their families torn apart; I have friends who fear that their voices won’t be heard when they speak out against sexism in the workplace.  I have students who don’t feel they can voice their opinions about the election for fear people will find out their parents are immigrants; I have students who fear bullying because of the traditional clothing they wear.  The response I’ve heard again and again from pro-Trump supporters is, “Don’t worry; I’m sure it will be fine.  We just all need to get over it and work together.”  But how can you work together under someone who negates your existence? Who trivializes your fear? Who does nothing to assuage half of the nation who has no idea if there’s even a place in this country for them anymore?

Words matter.  Protests matter.  If you fear your voice is being silenced, speak loudly, and again and again.  I need to speak, to give rise to my own voice.  It matters.  If I don’t speak, my silence makes me complicit in the injustices that follow.  This is not the world I want for my daughters, for my son.  I want them to see that their voices, too, matter, and that they need not simply be subject to the world in which they live; they need not simply accept where they see injustice in the world because they feel they don’t have power.  They can be forceful agents of change.  If I did not speak, I would be complicit in the silence of my own children, and that is not the world I wish for them.  Speak.  And for those who say, “If you’re not happy, you can leave the country,” I say it is my right—my responsibility—to speak for what I believe in in this, my country.  Speak.

–Donna Lutjens