I’m just going to go ahead and say it: I think Betsy DeVos was possibly the worst choice for Secretary of Education that could possibly have been made. That her nomination has now been confirmed (thanks to Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote) probably should come as a shock, but at this point it really doesn’t. After the election results, and the many horrors of the new administration, I've lost my ability to be shocked by bad politics. But even though I’m not exactly surprised, her appointment does hit pretty close to home for me. You see, Betsy DeVos and I, we’re from the same state, good old Michigan. The difference is that she’s a billionaire from a rich West Michigan family that does an awful lot of conservative political lobbying, and I’m a poor queer mom in Detroit. I have seen what her stance on education does for low-income children, and it isn’t pretty. Frankly, DeVos has destroyed Detroit schools, and I’m terrified of what she’ll do next.
Many people have already pointed out how deeply unqualified Betsy DeVos is for the position of Secretary of Education. But in case you’ve missed it (lucky you) basically, she’s never been an educator, and has never worked in public education in any capacity. Hell, DeVos didn’t even send her own kids to public schools (I guess maybe billionaires don’t do that? I wouldn’t know; I’ve never met any). During preliminary confirmation hearings, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed DeVos on her qualifications, forcing DeVos to admit she'd never led an organization like the Education Department at all. DeVos has also implied that she believes civil rights laws — especially those dealing with kids with disabilities — should be left up to states and not the federal government, despite the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law requiring schools to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities.
Here in Detroit, thanks in part to DeVos’s influence, we have plenty of charter schools. And somehow that hasn’t magically made our school system awesome.
In fact, charter schools have successfully funneled money away from traditional public schools, without offering better results. Because charter schools aren’t subject to the same oversight as public schools, taxpayers are essentially paying for something they have no say in. Some of these charter schools in Michigan are actually for-profit operations, as well, which means that even when they don’t serve students and families well, they stay in operation if they’re making money. Here in Detroit, that has spelled a confusing hodgepodge of school options, many of which do not perform well or have very serious problems.
My child is not yet old enough for school, but like most parents, I think about his future pretty much all the time. I talk to other parents — both parents of young kids like mine and parents of school-age children who are already in the thick of it — about the school options. And to be honest, it’s overwhelming and scary. I don’t know what the best choice is for him or for my family, I only know that there are a lot of very bad choices out there. There are some incredible teachers and educators in Detroit schools, including the public schools, charter schools, and private schools. But there’s also no denying that the overall education landscape has pretty much gone from bad to worse. And I believe that, in large part, some of that is due to the efforts of Betsy DeVos.
All parents like me are in an impossible situation. Do we spend the next couple of years working our asses off trying to figure out how to buy our child a private education? Could we even manage to come up with enough money if we tried? And if we did manage that, wouldn’t that isolate him from the reality that he actually lives in, which is a city that is largely low-income and African American? As progressive white parents in a black city, don’t we have a responsibility not to raise our kid in a white bubble? Or we could try to go the charter school route… but many of the better charter schools are hard to get into, so that’s not exactly guaranteed. Also, even if I were able to get him into a good charter school that was near enough to our home for me to be able to physically get him to every day, I’m still not a fan of the whole lack of oversight thing. Which leaves the option of public schools, which I want to believe in, but when kids and teachers are protesting the poor conditions at their schools, like they did at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit and South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in parents.
I believe that everyone should have a more-or-less equal chance to learn, to get an education that will provide them with greater options and abilities later in life. I don’t think good schools should be only for the kids of parents who can afford to send their kids to private schools. And I don’t think good schools should be only for the kids of parents who are able to leverage their various kinds of privilege to shop around for schools.
In theory, I believe in public education wholeheartedly. I believe that everyone should have a more-or-less equal chance to learn, to get an education that will provide them with greater options and abilities later in life. I don’t think good schools should be only for the kids of parents who can afford to send their kids to private schools. And I don’t think good schools should be only for the kids of parents who are able to leverage their various kinds of privilege to shop around for schools. An old friend once told me that if she had children, she would put them in public schools no matter what, because public schools are important and need support. But am I really supposed to believe that putting my child into a broken and dysfunctional system will somehow fix it when I feel people like DeVos are still actively working to hurt it further?
The whole thing leaves me feel powerless and angry.
But to really appreciate the danger of DeVos' influence as Secretary of Education, it's important to understand her track record on public schooling and the imprint its left in my home state, where thousands of other parents and I will eventually send our children. According to Politico.com, an analysis of DeVos' support of charter-school growth yielded an overall failure. After two decades, Michigan ranks "near the bottom" for fourth grade reading and math and eighth grade math. Following a year-long investigation by the Detroit Free Press, they found that 38 percent of charter schools receiving state academic rankings during the 2012-13 school year fell below the 25 percentile, which means that at least 75 percent of all other schools in the state performed better. (To compare, the Detroit Free Press found that only 23 percent of public schools fell below the 25 percentile.) The comprehensive report also highlighted the mismanagement of charter schools in Detroit, a fact echoed by The Atlantic: as it stands, anyone in Michigan can start a school, and in 1999, the Michigan State University looked at charter-school laws across the nation and found Michigan had the most permissive charter-school laws in the nation.
According to Excellent Schools Detroit, although more than half of the Detroit's school-aged students attend a charter school, fewer than 1 percent received an A or B+ grade. There are also 45 different charter-school authorizers, yet no thorough blueprints outlining what their oversight should be or what it should look like exist, according to QualityCharters.org.
As Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will have the opportunity to influence education policy on the federal level. If she does anything like what she’s done here in Michigan, I’m seriously afraid to see what’s coming for the nation’s kids and schools.