Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently made a speech, pegged as a “conversation on empowering parents,” at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It was another chance for DeVos to return to her favorite topic: vouchers.
While she was there, many in the audience engaged in a silent protest of her promotion of for-profit schools and commitment to reversing guidance on how colleges should handle allegations of sexual assault on campus. (When it comes to DeVos, there’s a lot to oppose.)
I forced myself to listen to her speech and the question-and-answer session moderated by Paul E. Peterson, a professor at Harvard and advocate of voucher programs. At times, I felt like I was getting a root canal without novocaine from the dentist in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” When the pain subsided, I was more convinced than ever that DeVos knows little about public schools and even less about their mission.
Here’s a summary:
1. DeVos talked about her Rethink School tour, applauding the schools she visited for openly stating: “’We’re not for everybody and we don’t expect everybody to want to come here.’ I think all schools should have that attitude.”
She doesn’t understand the concept of “public” schools—schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight, or transgender. The mission of public schools is to provide opportunities for each and every student who walks through the door, not to roll up the welcome mat, bar the door, and declare: “Sorry, but we’re not for everybody.”
I think we already went through that time in history. There was even a name for it: Segregation.
2. When she mentioned the places she visited during her tour, there was one noticeable omission: Michigan, her home state. Who can blame her? She funded efforts in Michigan to siphon funds from students in public schools, allowing for-profit companies to operate schools with taxpayer money and no accountability. The result? Schools with shoddy academic records continued operating for years; no state standards focus on who operates or oversees charters; and schools routinely close without giving families or educators adequate notice.
This, apparently, is her goal from coast to coast.
3. The education secretary said the schools on her tour operated as they chose, “without anyone in Washington…telling them ‘no.’” She thought that was just great.
“No,” however, is an important word when it comes to protecting our students and ensuring that they have the opportunities and resources they deserve.
We must say no to voucher programs and charter schools that divert taxpayer dollars from the public schools that educate 9 out of 10 students. We must say no when they are not accountable for how they are spending those dollars and do not comply with commonsense safeguards to protect students. We must say no as it becomes clear how many students in voucher programs are losing ground in math and reading. We must say no even louder when voucher schemes undercut civil rights enforcement by picking and choosing which students they want and which students they’ll turn away.
4. DeVos cherry-picked a quote from President Kennedy about how shifting a problem “from our own shoulders” to the government is “sacrificing the liberties of our own people.” That was her way of saying the federal government—specifically, the Department of Education—should get out of the way and let the voucher train barrel on down the tracks.
President Kennedy, we all know, submitted major civil rights legislation to Congress guaranteeing equal access to education and protecting the right to vote for all. JFK knew the federal government had an important role to play in ensuring access to educational opportunities. Betsy DeVos does not understand or appreciate that role.
5. Remember when DeVos compared choosing a school to deciding whether to get a taxi or an Uber? At Harvard, she compared education to food options. “If you visit a food truck instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? No. You are simply making the right choice for you, based on your individual needs.”
Can she stop with the comparisons and accept what public education does and what its mission is? Public schools play a unique and critical role in preparing students of all ages and backgrounds for work and life—period.
6. DeVos said we’re too concerned with what word precedes “school.” Whether the word is “public,” “for-profit,” “parochial,” or “online,” taxpayer dollars should subsidize all options, she believes.
But you’ll never hear her commit to supporting in public schools the things educators know get results—such as providing enough teachers and support professionals to give students the one-on-one attention they often need. I say all the time that if you visit the best public school in your community, what you see is what we should see in every public school. The education secretary should want to provide plenty of options in our public schools, accessible to students in every neighborhood, that meet individual needs.
7. Similarly, DeVos said folks are too interested in protecting a “system,” i.e., the system of public education. Here’s what she doesn’t get: Some “systems” are pretty darned important. The “circulatory system,” for instance, pumps blood and transports nutrients. The “skeletal system” supports and protects us. The secretary might not like systems, but they hold us together.
Back in February, I wrote to Betsy DeVos and asked for her response to several questions critical to supporting students and public education. I still haven’t gotten the answers that students, families, and educators deserve. But in that Harvard appearance, I heard her loud and clear.