I have to admit, President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Secretary of Education post was his first that didn’t make my jaw drop in disbelief instantly. I decided to keep an open mind and research her background before making up my mind, even as I immediately started seeing pro-DeVos and anti-DeVos posts in my Facebook “echo chamber.” After all, as President Obama said, if President-elect Trump succeeds, our country succeeds. So, between studying for finals and seeing friends and catching up with family over the last few days, I began my research…
She is a big Republican donor with 0 experience in a public school or in education period. Still trying to keep an open mind, I kept researching…
President-elect Trump said that Ms. DeVos will work to “reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” I am all for this, but what does this mean, exactly?
Since my time in Teach For America, I have had a love-hate relationship with charter schools. During my time in TFA, I had the privilege of teaching at one of the oldest public high schools in Memphis (Melrose High School in Orange Mound). I also had several friends who taught in charter schools—some of which were were providing great learning environments and opportunities for their students, and others which were poorly run and were failing at achieving this vision. Charter schools are unique animals—they are publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that are free from the directives and oversight of the local school district. Many times, this independence and freedom equates to a greater latitude for visionary school leaders to run schools that outperform their public counterparts (shout out to Soulsville Charter School, Libertas Academy, Freedom Prep Memphis, Memphis Grizzlies Prep, Veritas Memphis, and the many other amazing charter schools) . Other times, this independence and freedom leads to schools that perform at a lower rate of achievement than their public counterparts, with minimal course-correction directives from the district.
While in TFA, and since then, I have bristled at the idea that charter schools are the end-all, be-all solution to the grave issue of education inequity in our country. Partially because I saw what some of my friends saw and dealt with at poorly run charter schools, and partially because I was teaching at a public school whose students deserved the very best in funding and policy from our government as well.
Ms. DeVos is a proponent of charter schools as well as “school choice” via vouchers. What is wrong with giving vouchers to families who may not be able to afford private school tuition to be able to send their children to higher performing private schools in the area? Here’s what’s wrong—no matter how much “school choice” our government finances, there will be students left behind in increasingly failing public schools because of this measure. Money will go to vouchers instead of improving our existing public schools. Not every student will get a voucher, and even if many do, our public schools, and the students remaining there, will be left even farther behind, and the inequity will grow even deeper and more serious. We can’t afford to go down this path for 4 years—children’s livelihoods and opportunities are at stake.
It is true that in the 8 years of President Obama’s leadership, our country has not solved this grave issue of educational inequity. I was able to teach during a time when Tennessee was one of President Obama’s Race to the Top recipients, which saw mixed results—positive outcomes (some increased student achievement) as well as negative outcomes (increased bureaucracy and mandates on over-worked teachers). All-in-all, I thought it was a step in the right direction for the federal government, even if it didn’t solve all the many, complicated issues of educational inequity overnight. And as much as I love TFA and its vision as an organization to strive for the realization that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” I hope and pray, and will continue to work toward, making sure TFA goes out of business.
What do I mean? I mean I don’t think our country should need TFA— we need to continue to address improving our public schools ASAP to meet TFA’s vision, which I think encompasses what we all want for all of our children as Americans. [I personally think the first steps towards this are 1) addressing issues of systemic poverty that directly affect low-income students (healthcare, access to food, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunities for families) 2) raising teacher pay and increasing benefits for teachers through classroom resources and professional development, 3) adopting higher national standards for curriculum (Common Core or an improved curriculum), and 4) limiting class sizes and/or decreasing the teacher/student ratio in every classroom (I regularly had 30+ students in a classroom all by myself, and all of these students were on various learning levels.) But that’s for another blog…]
For today, I hope Ms. DeVos focuses on improving our current public schools instead of trying to throw money at the problem through vouchers and increasing the presence of charter schools, some of which may work but others of which will be free to fail at their leisure because of a lack of local school district oversight, but at deep costs to their students. We should not take our focus off improving the educational outcomes and life trajectories for our current and future public school students.