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Betsy DeVos and the Future of Education

unnamedIf you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably seen information about Betsy DeVos’ nomination to be the Secretary of Education. She’s come under massive fire for her positions and policies on education. That’s not to mention that if you watch the clips from her hearing, she often did not answer the question posed. As someone who hopes to work in the Massachusetts public school system within the next decade, potentially with DeVos as our national leader of public education, this concerns me deeply. I’m sure that feeling is shared by many current and future educators. I was prompted to research DeVos’ competency as a candidate for this important position for millions of America’s children, and I wanted to share that information with others.

DeVos’ answers in the Senate hearing worried me. I appreciate her desire to advocate for students and parents to choose how their child will be educated, especially for children in poverty, her actions indicate that even with the best of intentions, she is not the right fit for the Secretary of Education. In one exchange, Democratic Senator Franken asked about DeVos’ view on “the relative advantage of assessments and using them to measure proficiency or growth.” This continued and DeVos attempted to define proficiency, incorrectly defined it in terms of growth, and made it clear she neither understood the question nor did she comprehend the issue Franken was asking her about. When Senator Warren asked if DeVos would “enforce the gainful employment rule to make sure that these career colleges are not cheating students,” DeVos said she would “review” the policies that already existed. These responses prove DeVos will not commit to doing the job she is swearing she is both prepared for and will do. She is unprepared for both.

I think it’s important to note that the Democrats, after the first hearing for DeVos, requested a second hearing. The Chairman, Lamar Alexander, refused, stating in a letter to Senator Murray: “Already Mrs. DeVos has spent considerably more time answering questions of committee members than either of President Obama’s education secretaries. I do not know why our committee should treat a Republican nominee so differently than the nominee of a Democratic president.” In addition, Alexander’s aide said, “Betsy DeVos has already met with each committee member in their offices, spent nearly an hour and a half longer in her Senate hearing than either of President Obama’s education secretaries, and is now answering 837 written questions — 1,397 including all the questions within a question — that Democrats have submitted for her to answer. That’s compared with the 81 questions — 109 including all questions within a question — Republicans submitted in writing to Obama’s two Secretaries of Education combined”. These are fair points, as DeVos should not be subject to unequal treatment, and the Republican members of the board seem to be convinced. These measures go above and beyond what President Obama’s nominees had to undergo. However, this level of questioning also indicates the Democrats’ lack of confidence in her as a candidate. I may just be underestimating the force of will from politicians to block the other party’s nominees, but I doubt that someone would go to all the trouble to write nearly 1,400 questions if they didn’t feel they needed to know the answers to make an informed decision.

unnamedWith this preliminary information, her history in school systems, or lack thereof, is even more worrying. “Given the fact that she has no experience as either a teacher or school administrator, we are distressed by the lack of details offered by Ms. DeVos as to how she will address some of the many challenges facing our public education system,” said Evan Stone, a cofounder of the New York group Educators 4 Excellence. Personally, as someone who would be working directly with students and trying to shape their education, having a national leader who has never done the job herself feels fundamentally wrong. DeVos may be a parent and she may have worked with children in other contexts and she may be an educational reformer, but none of those compare to actually working in a classroom with public school students. I’ve already tutored kids ranging from elementary school to high school, and the public school environment, while it may be flawed, is unique. I do not understand how she can be hired for a position when she has never taught these kids, to not know what they’re thinking and feeling and learning in their classrooms on a daily basis. In New York City alone, Mayor Bill de Blasio, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, Advocates for Children, a group that helps get services for students with disabilities and low-income families, and Alliance for Quality Education all expressed doubts about her appointment.

Her own foundation and history is one of “school choice.” This includes tax credits to pay for private school costs, vouchers, and charter school options. Her family foundation has given a minimum of seven million dollars in the last 20 years toward promoting school choice causes and helping candidates campaign who support it. In an interview, DeVos said the public is becoming aware “that traditional public schools are not succeeding….In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing.” It is one thing to believe that the public education system is failing and thus needs reform, but it is another to suggest that the only way to fix education altogether is to abandon public schools. Instead of pouring time and effort into the public school system, DeVos seems to believe that they are not worth it.

She went on to say that when visiting the Potter’s House Christian School, she and her husband “met parents who were doing everything in their power to have their kids in an environment that was safe, where they were learning, and where the atmosphere was just electric with curiosity, with love for one another.” I have that vision too. I want that for every child and every parent. But her plan ultimately depends on schools without the same oversight as public schools, without addressing goals for children who will not get to leave the school systems she so fundamentally insists are failing. Lotteries and school choice ultimately mean that some children will be left behind. There will be less money and fewer resources in schools that are already struggling, and fewer, if any, regulations for charter and private schools that might not even follow a successful curriculum.

These school voucher programs have existed for years, the longest being in Milwaukee. It has been in place for two decades, and the students who left the public for the private schools have actually done worse on standardized testing, even accounting for socioeconomic status. Cleveland’s voucher program has the same results. As the school reformer Diane Ravitch, wrote: “In sum, twenty years after the initiation of vouchers in Milwaukee and a decade after the program’s expansion to include religious schools, there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind.” These programs do not work. They have proven to be unsuccessful. Yet Betsy DeVos still believes this is the best way to educate our nation’s children.

In Detroit, where she has done most of her work, she is no hero. After junior year of high school, a dismal 10% of students received scores that were “college ready” on literacy exams. Rather than nonprofit or family-run schools being dominant, 80% of Michigan’s charters are run by for-profits. DeVos and her husband created the Great Lakes Education Project, now the strongest force to keep charter schools in Michigan. While these schools may seem safer or like better options for parents, many feel misled. In reading and math, charter schools have scores that are 80% and 84%, respectively, below state averages. This is not to demonize charters, but rather to cast light on the fact that DeVos, who has worked so hard to make charters a solution for Detroit students, promotes in a system that has ultimately failed.

Recently, a video has been circulating the internet about a student from Detroit named Dana Wilson. She describes the long distances her parents have to travel to bring her to school every week, the many schools she and her siblings have attended, and the fact that she is simply unsatisfied with the education that she has received. To her, this is “a satisfaction that our eyes haven’t seen, a satisfaction our hearts can only hope for. A satisfaction that has been stolen from [her] because of the naive and narrow policies pushed by Betsy DeVos.” Wilson’s voice matters. Her story matters. We need to listen to our country’s students: they are the ones who are living under these policies. Dana, who lives with the policies DeVos worked so hard to institute, feels her education has failed her. Many of peers in Detroit feel the same. Knowing this, we as a nation would fail our country’s students if we were to institute DeVos as their advocate for change.

The Senate committee will vote whether to accept DeVos’ nomination Tuesday, January 31st.

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