Well...it's been quite a week. And that's putting it mildly. But for many teachers, the concerns with President Trump began well before he took the oath of office and officially became President of the United States. It right and truly began when he nominated Betsy Devos for the position of Secretary of the US Department of Education. Over the past several weeks I have joined thousands of educators around the country in working for and very vocally calling for her nomination to be snubbed. Last night I was asked, very fairly, why. All bullfeathers (wink to President Teddy) aside, what is my problem with Mrs. Devos, and how might her confirmation affect our children 2, 4, 10 years down the road. So...here goes.
Let me begin by focusing thought on the primary criticisms which have been leveled at Mrs. Devos, of which there are three:
1. Her substantial donations to the campaigns of several politicians, some of which sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in front of which she had her hearing;
2. Her advocacy for school choice and voucher initiatives;
3. Her lack of experience in education.
With this focus in mind, allow me to talk about my reaction to each, and make my issues with her clear.
Fact- Betsy Devos has a ton of money. Fact- she, and her family, have given that money, in large sums, as donations to candidates. Fact- she has said that she expects some return on those donations. Fact- Some of the politicians to which her money has gone have influential positions in the US Senate from which to help her secure her confirmation. Fact- this doesn't bother me. This might surprise some, but the fact is that I've been around politics a long time (I worked my first election when I was 7). Perhaps it is a sad indictment of where we are, but as a realist I tend to not get wrapped up in who gave money to whom as much as I focus on other issues. Money is a reality of politics; it's hard to get elected without money. Would I prefer that Senators like Todd Young (who was given a substantial donation from Mrs. Devos) recuse themselves during a vote like this- yes. But that is not reality, and we can talk all we want about unicorns, but it doesn't mean I'll ride one in my lifetime.
Here is where my issues begin to take shape. Honestly, school choice is something with which I am ok. For me, there are three great things that I'll get to do with my life- be a husband, be a father, and be a teacher. I take my job very seriously (some might say too seriously, but...I don't understand that thought, so whatever). I look at education from the perspective of both a teacher and a father. Very little means more to me than good education. And to that end, I believe that parents should have a choice about where their child goes to school. But, I am also a consequence guy. I believe that every choice comes with potential consequences, and these must be weighed with the choice. Every student is given the right to a free public education (and yes, I do believe this is a civil right). However, if a parent does not wish for their child to attend a public school, that is their choice. They can send their child to a private school, charter school, Montessori school, etc. I will always stand up for that choice. AND, I truly have no issue with these schools teaching a curriculum of their choice (even though I personally wouldn't want my own children to be taught in such a fashion). So...what's the problem, because it sounds like I am aligned with Mrs. Devos in this belief. Here's the rub- the reason those schools can teach what they want is because they do not receive any money from the government, at least they are not meant to. It's this pesky thing called "separation of church and state" (I know, I know- this phrase isn't in the Constitution, it was used by Tom Jefferson in a letter to a group of Baptist ministers in Danbury, CT, but the First Amendment seems pretty clear on this subject). BUT- these schools are receiving government money, in the form of vouchers, which help parents pay for the often very high tuition of a private school. Uh oh, there are those consequences- by passing on the free public education you have to pay the tuition of a private school. So taxpayer money is going to a school teaching a curriculum that may be religiously focused. That doesn't sit well with me, but I can even make my peace with that issue. Here is where I have a real issue: these schools are often not being held to the same standards as a public school. They should be expected to deal with the impact of standardized tests, and they certainly should be held to the same standards of accessibility to students who may face disabilities. But they are not.
Honestly, this is my biggest hangup with Mrs. Devos. She has no experience in public education. None. I've heard many of her supporters argue against this point by saying that she cares about our children. That is, without a doubt, important. In fact I would argue that the most important qualification for anyone in education is passion for our kids. But THIS SHOULD NOT BE THE ONLY QUALIFICATION. Every single American should care about our kids. If I were in a position to hire/fire, I would never hire someone who didn't have this passion, but I would also not hire anyone who only had this qualification. For all the talk about education, it is a job that is truly impossible to understand without first-hand experience. Teachers are often handed the blame for poor school performance, and we shoulder that blame. No one feels the pain of failure quite like a teacher. Few ache for our students like a teacher. Quite frankly, I'm insulted that any teacher would be made to look to someone who doesn't have that first-hand experience. Say what you want, but until you have stayed up until 1am to grade papers and plan a lesson, and then gotten back up at 4am to finish; until you have sat down with a student, and listened to them share the pain in their life, and cried with that student because you see that you love and care for that student more than most others in their life; until you have dealt with the realities of being a classroom teacher, please do not make the assumption that you have any idea what being an educator is really all about. The day to day work with our students is not a business transaction; it is an endeavor in love.
How could the confirmation of Betsy Devos affect our kids directly? In some ways- not much. Much of education is still handled by Boards of Education at the state level. But if the Department of Education at the federal level does nothing else, it can affect national policy on vouchers, which could result in millions of dollars, which are meant to be used for the improvement of public schools, being taken from said schools. This means less money for facilities, curriculum, professional development, resources, teacher pay, etc. And it certainly is there to ensure the basic rights of every child in schools across the country. If there was no other reason to fight her confirmation, it would be enough to see her lack of understanding of national law like the IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which works to ensure that our students with disabilities are given the resources that they require, and more importantly, deserve. When asked about this law in her confirmation hearing, Mrs. Devos appeared to know very little about these requirements, and that alone should scare anyone.
Why have I, and countless other figures in education, fought this confirmation? Because Betsy Devos simply does not have the resume to warrant such a position.