Who is Our Secretary of Education, What Will She Do, and What Should We Do?
Recent national data show that nine out of ten students in this country attend public schools. Additionally national polls consistently show that the majority of Americans, both republican and democrat, approve of their neighborhood schools. They oppose closing them down, even when they are low-performing. This may very well be the fundamental basis of why so many individuals, especially those affiliated with public education express concern regarding the newly confirmed Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos.
The mantra of opportunity, choice and competition has been the guiding principle for Secretary DeVos in Michigan and nationally. Initiatives she has backed have included efforts to expand the number of charters in the public school system and to limit oversight and regulation of charters. Secretary Devos has also advocated for tuition tax credits and voucher programs that use public money to help students attend private schools. She was a strong supporter of a failed Michigan ballot measure on vouchers for private schools.
Groups she has supported and helped run — including the American Federation for Children — have pushed similar free-market choice ideas. Another hint at policies Secretary DeVos might pursue as Education Secretary comes from the Great Lakes Education Project - which Secretary DeVos helped create and, until her nomination, served on its board. The organization supports full or comprehensive choice options with what is known as portability.
"We want the investment in a child's education, be they federal or state dollars, we want [that money] to follow that child to the school of their choice whether it's public or private".Executive Director Gary Naeyaert
A number of individuals in Michigan, Secretary Devos’ home state, have expressed concern. Stephen Henderson an editor with the Detroit Free Press wrote the following: “In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools. What remains in short supply is quality.”
In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.
On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.
Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.
For students enrolled in schools of choice — that is, schools in nearby districts who have opened their doors to children who live outside district boundaries — it’s not much better. Kids who depend on Detroit’s problematic public transit are too far away from the state’s top-performing school districts — and most of those districts don’t participate in the schools of choice program, anyway.
This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome. And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.
The national education unions have expressed concern. After a historic confirmation battle in which she became the first cabinet secretary confirmed by a vice president's tie-breaking vote Randi Weingarten, president of the AFL-CIO affiliated American Federation of Teachers, lashed out at DeVos in a press release.
"DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives; and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school," she said. "But it’s more likely we’ll now hear the same trashing of public schools that the disrupters, the privatizers, and the austerity hawks have used for the last two decades. That makes this a sad day for children."Randi Weingarten
The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, also denounced the 51-50 vote to install DeVos at the Department of Education. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said that the union will continue to battle DeVos with the ferocity it summoned during the confirmation battle, saying that recent events marked "only the beginning of the resistance. We are going to watch what Betsy DeVos does. And we are going to hold her accountable for the actions and decisions she makes on behalf of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s public schools," she said.
It is clear Secretary Devos’ beliefs and prior actions have created substantial concern, maybe even fear, among many public educators. While she was confirmed in the narrowest manner possible, it is still important to note she was confirmed. Only two Republican senators broke rank. One could ask why more senators did not try to block her confirmation if indeed she represents “bad business” for public schools. Obviously we can appreciate their support for the newly elected president and the possible sense of political obligation. This certainly begs the question, does party politics mean more than maintaining the current school system. Or is there a sense by many of the legislators that it is time to try something new.
There is already some initial back and forth related to ESSA. Secretary Devos is keeping in place the Obama administration's timeline for submitting the plans, which includes one early bird deadline on April 3rd and one later deadline, on September 18th. Interestingly the accountability regulations include a template for states to use as they build their ESSA plans. However Secretary DeVos has indicated they are reviewing that template to make sure that it does not ask for any information that is not "absolutely necessary." Additionally the new Department of Education may release a new template for states by mid-March.
With so much activity and speculation happening right now, the FED ED has not lost sight of how important your perspective is. The FED ED understands that the public schools we represent have a history of providing outstanding education for their students and communities. Our constituents continually strive for excellence and adapt and evolve as necessary. In many ways we believe that the school districts that we represent are educational leaders and can serve as models for other school districts throughout the country. That is why we will continue advocating strongly for the advancement of public education. This means there are certain issues we will oppose and certain ones we will support. The FED ED recognizes that while some of the individuals in Washington DC have changed and there is an anticipated new sense of direction, we need to be wise advocates. We cannot blindly oppose actions just because of a new political agenda or perceived contrary philosophy. We need to continue being thoughtful and rational. We need to continue being experienced advocates representing good ideals and good ideas. More than ever the FED ED needs to continually know your thoughts and interests. When we speak with the various legislators in Washington DC we need to have our facts and school examples readily available. Together we will continue pursuing an educational direction that makes sense and best serves our students and communities. The FED is confident your voice will continue to be heard as we continue to advance public education.