And then Betsy DeVos said education should be more like “food trucks and restaurants”

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.

6 Responses to “And then Betsy DeVos said education should be more like “food trucks and restaurants””

  1. Al Tate

    Probably the most disturbing feature of Betsy DeVos and her supporters is that they are ideologues who ascribe to the capitalism/free enterprise (choice) concepts as the solution to all problems. They ignore the results of failure for the past 20 years of experimenting with untested methodology and the terrible impacts that have accrued to public schools, especially from stealing limited funds earmarked for public education.
    Our challenge is to find ways to improve and enhance public education essentially with the limited funding available. After all, throughout the history of public education in America, it has rarely- if ever – been adequately funded. Here are a couple of thoughts: 1) Reduce the effective student/teacher ratio by using retired teachers/qualified senior citizens as coaches/assistants in the classrooms to work with the certified classroom teachers. They should be paid and participate as part-time employees. 2) Create some for-credit classes for older students and restructure the daily schedule so that qualified students who have demonstrated mastery of curriculum being taught to younger students can be used in the primary classroom (with supervision) as coaches during part of the day 2 or 3 times a week. The older kids get to practice their skills and the younger kids get motivated by the attention from the older students as well as immediate feedback to practice what they have learned.

    • Kay Erickson

      Two GREAT ideas. Many retired teachers do not want to become subs, but would jump at the chance to work part time in retirement. They could provide the one-on-one that the classroom teacher can’t.

  2. Jonathan Smith

    Here is a quote from Upton Sinclair which epitomizes Lily Eskelson’s attack on DeVos. It was originally written from the male perspective but I have changed it to apply to women:

    “It is difficult to get a [wo]man to understand something, when [her] salary depends on [her] not understanding it.” Quote from Upton Sinclair

    Eskelson criticizes DeVos for her position on public schools because she can’t comprehend how anyone could want to do things differently.

    Eskelson believes that public schools are the best and only fair way to educate all of the children in this great country of ours. Anyone who disagrees is an idiot.

    DeVos thinks that we should try other things like vouchers, charter schools and for-profit institution.

    Lily Eskelson needs to wake up and realize that not everyone thinks that public schools are necessarily the best or only way to educate our children.

  3. chip Brown

    I am substitue teacher that has been a leader in the business realm for 30 years. AS i went into this new endeavor i was hoping to learn what our education system is doing while at the same time trying to be most effective in my responsibility.

    I agree with both Al and Jonathan above. Al’s suggestions are right on where I have seen some deficiencies. The public educations deficiencies are centered in the failure to handle the children that are struggling to handle a concept.Public Education CANNOT fit all. We all know this through our own education. When I hear about resources or rather lack of it, it centers on people. Aids, assistants, tutors whatever you want to call them are needed in public schools. Every student that falls behind in any subject will be effected their entire journey. Public education cannot address the needs of about 20% in each classroom. I am convinced that almost all of the 20% can be learners with extra attention. I like the use of Al’s older students as a resource. Excellent people building.

    The people that want to have choice in education it directly relates to their personal commitment as a parent for their child’s education. How can anyone argue against that? The narrative of having 20% of the students lagging behind in a classroom effects the student who is excelling and wants to advance. We can’t accept that as a society.

  4. Karen Hart

    Your headline was misleading. Traditional public, public charter, parochial schools, she’s right choosing one does not mean you hate all the other. You are just choosing the one that is best for your child. I sent both my kids to a public charter school, and that has had it’s ups and downs, One of my kids is an excellent student and one is an average student but I am confident that at the end of the day both have received a solid education.

  5. Sascha

    As a teacher for close to 15 years, I have seen first hand what happens when you divert public funding to private institutions. It drains an already dry system. People love to compare charter/private schools to public ones, but keep in mind you can’t make a fair comparison if things are not the same on both sides. Charter schools do work in many situations. They are able to cherry pick students who have limited behavior, emotional and cognitive issues. They also get parents who are already involved (it is a condition required by most charter schools). I cannot tell you how many meetings I have been to for students with IEP’s transferring out of charter schools on the subtle recommendation of the school because they are ‘unable’ to provide services for these students. If Devos really cared about education overall, her goal would be to take what works in schools that do well (whether public/private/charter) and try to replicate that in ALL public schools. That’s not her goal though. She is slowly trying to privatize and dismantle the public education system for profit at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of children, many of whom have disabilities, are poor and and are minorities. As an educator, I find it insulting that we have someone leading our education department who has NEVER been an educator who has come through the trenches.


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