Current Events in Education

Considering the Case for Betsy DeVos

I am not a fan of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. I wasn’t fond of Arne Duncan either. And after working under John King when he led New York’s schools I didn’t cheer for his appointment.
But Betsy DeVos represents a different challenge to public school teachers, students, and families. I shared feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety with for a short video:

My fellow Educator’s Room writer, Tracie Happel, took issue, and challenged me to research DeVos’s record more carefully. While, I don’t feel I came to my conclusions about DeVos haphazardly, I also acknowledge that my media “diet” tends to be almost exclusively from the left side of the political spectrum. So, I accepted Tracie’s challenge to rethink Betsy DeVos, and we both agreed to read three sources from the other’s point of view.
My fellow TER writer challenged me to research DeVos’s record more carefully Click To Tweet
For my part, I shared “The Conservative Case for Betsy DeVos” from Slate, “What Would Appointing Betsy DeVos Mean for the Office for Civil Rights?” from Pacific Standard, and “DeVos dodges toughest questions about public school plans” from Politico. I chose these articles, because I felt they reflected my biggest concerns, and weren’t written from overly partisan perspectives. Politico in particular has a pretty centrist reputation.
Tracie assigned me three readings of her own, designed to provoke and challenge from their own side of the debate. The first was, “Why we need an outsider like Betsy DeVos as education secretary“, an op-ed written by Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz for The New York Post. The second article she assigned was an opinion piece from Vox titled, “The job of the education secretary isn’t to defend public schools. It’s to help kids learn.” My final reading was an op-ed from The Washington Examiner, “Stop saying Betsy DeVos is uninformed and unqualified.”
I can best summarize the case for Betsy DeVos put forth by these articles as this: our public schools are failing, and they need to be shaken up. Betsy DeVos is the right person to do the shaking.
It was interesting to read Eva Moskowitz spin two characteristics I considered liabilities – lack of experience, and immense personal wealth – into positives. “DeVos, by contrast, isn’t a politician and thus she’s not constrained by the orthodoxy of the educational establishment,” Moskowitz writes. “Rather, she is somebody who has spent tens of millions of dollars of her own money to give ordinary families the same opportunities that many of the wealthy politicians opposing her nomination have.”
Moskowitz is well-known in New York City where I teach for her zealous commitment to school choice and her hatred for teachers’ unions. I’m skeptical that school choice and weaker unions are the solution though. Currently, charter schools and independent schools serve a small portion of our country’s students (This was one of my main issues with the Vox op-ed). It’s not clear how realistic it is to dramatically increase this number, and it’s even less clear how doing so will increase educational achievement for our country’s most marginalized children. Overall, the expansion of charter schools has not improved equitable access to quality education. In many cases “school choice” exacerbates segregation and inequity.
The Washington Examiner made an interesting case that DeVos’s outsider status was a positive, because it would lead to greater humility and more respect for local expertise. I think a lot of public school families and teachers would appreciate greater control over their community’s schools. But I’m skeptical that DeVos’s supposed humility will lead to better outcomes, especially for students of color, LGBTQ students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. History shows us that when states and localities have control without accountability or oversight powerful stakeholders will get control over school decisions, and everyone else is left out. Let’s not forget that the loudest proponents of segregation often used the language of local control and state’s rights to fight federal intervention.
Ultimately, I appreciated the opportunity to read “the other side’s” perspective on Besty DeVos. I found it interesting the way her outsider status, commitment to school choice, and support for local control superseded so many other aspects of the work of the United States Department of Education. I wonder why understanding our nation’s school system and public schools in particular would not be beneficial if one wanted to “shake them up.” The authors’ focus on change left little room to discuss the work of the Office for Civil Rights, college affordability and access, or protecting people from fraudulent and exploitative schools.
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Personally, I will not argue with the authors of these pieces when it comes to criticism of the United States public school system. I got into teaching to join the fight against inequity in our nation’s schools. We all want great schools for all the children in our country. But our commonalities end with a general disappointment with the state of our country’s schools. We disagree on the root causes, and we disagree on the path forward.
I do not have faith in school choice to save our schools. I do not buy the argument that we’ve been throwing money at schools. I’ve spent the last ten years in Title I public schools, and I’ve never seen any evidence that we were “flush with cash.” I do not think we can pursue equitable and excellent schools without paying attention to particular populations. Fighting for Black, Latino, and Native American children is going to take more than vouchers and charters.
These disagreements are not trivial. They represent a vast distance between our visions for public education. I don’t think Betsy DeVos is a bad person, but I do think a very bad idea for our country’s children.

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