Why Can’t DeVos Support the School I Chose?

Why Can’t DeVos Support the School I Chose? January 10, 2017

I was reading through an article on Mother Jones when I came upon this:

Education historian Diane Ravitch, who founded the advocacy group Network for Public Education in 2013, described unions as “shocked and worried” by the DeVos selection in an email to Mother Jones. “The previous Republican administrations did not threaten the very existence of public education and teachers unions,” she added. “This coming four years is an existential threat to a basic Democratic institution: public schools. Trump has picked a Secretary who is hostile to public schools. This is unprecedented.”

That last bit that I highlighted? That is what has stuck in my craw every time I’ve thought about Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos. I’m well aware that Republicans are test-happy when it comes to the public schools. Think No Child Left Behind. I’m well aware that Republicans favor vouchers and charter schools. I know all this, but what scares me most about DeVos is not this, but rather her inability to say anything positive at all about the nation’s public schools.

About a month ago, I read an interview (which I now cannot find) in which DeVos was asked whether she supports public schools. DeVos refused to say that she did. She said that she supported “public education,” which she defined as public moneys being used to fund education, but she refused to state that she supported public schools. She would not—or perhaps could not—say it.

The last time I checked, one of the most important functions of the Department of Education was to oversee national policy affecting the nation’s public schools. Shouldn’t support for those schools—even if one also supports school choice—be a prerequisite for the head of that department? Shouldn’t wanting those schools to succeed, to serve students well, to receive the resources they need be a requirement?

My daughter attends a public elementary school, so yes, this is personal. But you know what? Roughly nine out of ten students in this country attend public schools. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the vast majority of parents would rather see their child’s school improve—in resources, in opportunities, in positive student-teacher interactions—than move their child to another school.

I have serious concerns about the frequent reliance on test scores as a measure of school quality. Because students’ background factors are so different—income, race, parental education—test scores alone don’t actually say anything at all about school quality. Last summer Michigan’s School Reform Office announced that it would close every school that had been in the bottom 5% for the past three years at the end of this school year—roughly 100 schools total, dozens of which are located in Detroit. Well you know what? Someone has to be in the bottom 5%. That’s how percentiles work. Why not work to improve these schools rather than shuttering them?

I also have concerns about vouchers and charter schools, primarily because both private schools and charter schools are frequently allowed to operate with little or no accountability. There are fundamentalist Christian schools that use the workbook-driven ACE curriculum, eschewing teachers in favor of “classroom monitors.” Charter schools generally don’t have teacher’s unions, which also creates problems—I have a friend whose husband taught at a charter school for years, and the fact that he could be fired for any reason or none at all put a damper on what he felt he could take to the administration. Kids need teachers with the freedom to advocate for them.

But again, all of this is beside the point when it comes to the core of my concerns about DeVos. I understand that Trump won the election and that he was always going to appoint a test-happy Republican nominee who supports vouchers and charter schools. I get that. But would it have been so hard to find someone who both embraces school choice and cares about and values our nation’s public schools? Surely such people exist! Why pick someone who has made undermining public schools their life’s mission, someone who cannot bring herself to say that she supports our nation’s public schools—schools like my daughter’s?

As a parent of two young children, I don’t want a Secretary of Education who supports school choice as much I want a Secretary of Education who supports the school I choose—even if that school is a public school.

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