Instruction & Curriculum

Responding to DeVos’s Negligent #SOTU19 Response

With Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address in the rear-view mirror, we are left to reflect on and process the 82-minute sermon. Naturally, education received some attention in the speech, as it has for countless other SOTUs. This time, Trump shared 16 particular words about his education policy:
“To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children.”
Despite issues around school violence, arming teachers, and inequitable district funding consistently swirling around the news, Trump’s sentence is telling. He’s decided to leave education policy up to his “expert” policy wonk:  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The Secretary’s statement came out shortly after the SOTU ended. Its seven sentences articulate DeVos’s experiences and corresponding worldview as to what she believes education needs the most:
“Too many American students are far too limited by the current education ‘system’ that assigns them to a school building based solely on where they live. That means their family income largely dictates their education options. But the freedom to choose the right education should not only be for the rich, powerful and connected. All students should have the freedom to pursue an education that develops their talents, unleashes their unique potential and prepares them for a successful life. “The President was exactly right tonight to remind the nation of his call to expand education freedom. I look forward to continuing to work with Congress on ways to give students opportunities to pursue the education that engages their curiosity, unlocks their creativity and empowers them to reach their fullest potential. It’s time to do what’s best for kids and get to work.”
Unfortunately, as she has done for most of her tenure as Secretary, DeVos displays gross negligence for the actual issues facing schools these days.
Unfortunately, as she has done for most of her tenure as Secretary, DeVos displays gross negligence for the actual issues facing schools these days. Click To Tweet
Inequitable Education Funding
Her first point about students being assigned schools and thus being limited by their income brackets is an important one. It is no mystery that students who live in poor neighborhoods continue to have fewer educational resources and opportunities than students who live in rich neighborhoods. But her argument makes a misstep when she says that “freedom” is the way to address this issue.
The truth is that we have evidence from other school districts around the country that school choice (what DeVos is dubbing as “freedom”) is but a band-aid on the gushing wound that is inequitable school funding. It completely ignores the issues of transportation, time and effort required to research potential school options, the agency required to make such decisions, and the knowledge barrier– all things that have a disproportionately negative impact on families from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.
The Potential For Inequity In School Choice
DeVos’s second point about allowing students to pursue their passions and unlock their potential is a great one. What parent or teacher doesn’t want students to make this happen for themselves? The issue is the context in which she is promoting it. This assertion is based on the idea that art students could attend an arts school, and science students attend a science school. But the question here is about the rest of the students. Where do the undecided students end up? Furthermore, how much pressure are we putting on students and parents to make decisions about their futures before they are developmentally ready? Finally, what about arts or science programs at the non-arts or science-based schools? Assuming DeVos’s tone, it would appear as though these programs would receive inequitable funding, leaving us with a similar problem to what we currently have.
Valuing Diversity
Three additional points must be made about DeVos’s statement here, and the first is about school diversity. There is ample evidence that being able to navigate a diverse group of people, collaborate effectively, and understand the nuances of interpersonal relationships are critical to the skillsets of college-ready and work-ready people. In short: Interacting with people who don’t look and think like you is valuable and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Yet, we know that school choice has a history of segregating schools, and that there is historical evidence that higher income students (mostly White) will leave schools, plummeting the institutions from which they depart into catastrophe. If you need further evidence of the importance of school integration, have a listen to this episode of This American Life or read this ProPublica article by the same author or refer to the reasons why Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned.
Woeful Ignorance
The second point is that it’s difficult to read DeVos’s statement as not having undercurrents of racism, classism, and religiosity in addition to its woeful ignorance. It’s clear that DeVos has no sense of what the issues facing education are for the poorest students (or even working class students), and even less sense of what issues are being faced by communities of color. She is entrenched in her belief that everyone has access to the privilege that she had, and that they just need help opening that high-gloss barn-red door a little more. Additionally, her background as a religious school attendee and previous statements about opening the doors to “God’s Kingdom” for students seem to be fueling an unstated desire to allow public education funding to flow into religious schools. All of these undertones make DeVos’s statement even more troubling.
Freedom Isn’t Necessarily Free
Finally, I have to point out the way DeVos uses the word freedom in her statement. Similar to those legislators who penned the term “No Child Left Behind” (Who wants to leave children behind?!), her co-opting of the idea of freedom– one that we Americans hold so dear –is completely unfair. As African-American history has taught us, just because someone is no longer a slave does not mean that they are free. As economic trends have taught us, just because someone lives in a home does not mean they are wealthy. DeVos’s uninformed use of the word freedom here is a misrepresentation of her policy. In truth, DeVos’s version of freedom is reserved for the few, the privileged, thus leaving the majority of students in a situation where they will inevitably denied the education that we are morally obligated to provide.

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