Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Taking the Public Out of Re-public-an" -- Betsy DeVos Confirmed


The Senate narrowly confirmed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education with Vice President Pence casting a historic tiebreaking vote after senators deadlocked over her fitness for the job. Devos is a controversial choice for the position – an appointment that makes her responsible for advancing public schools in America.

Ms. DeVos is a billionaire with no education degree. She graduate from Calvin College, a private Christian colleg in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a bachelor's degree in business administration and political science. In fact, she has practically no experience with a public school environment. She has never attended public school or state university. Even before college, DeVos attended private K-12 schools and a private high school (Holland Christian High School) in Holland, Michigan. And, none of Betsy and Rick DeVos' four children attended public schools.

In her new position, DeVos will make decisions affecting nearly 100,000 public schools and over 50 million children. 90 percent of U.S. school children attend public schools.

DeVos has long been an advocate for "school choice," meaning she believes all families should have access to more educational options than just public schools. This position does involve, to some extent, funneling money away from public schools and toward private educational options, including for-profit and Christian-based schools – her critics argue that redirecting public monies to private schools via vouchers or other schemes is tantamount to defunding the public school system. She also favors the proliferation of charter schools, some of which are organized as for-profit businesses.

DeVos and her family have long supported causes associated with the Christian religious right, and she has publicly called education reform a way to "advance God's kingdom.” Anya Kamenetz of National Public Radio reports: “Voucher programs have faced constitutional challenges in Florida and elsewhere, among other reasons, because they direct public money to religiously based organizations.”

Kamenetz says, “The tax-credit structure is especially significant when considering what could happen under DeVos in the Trump administration.” In a scholarship tax credit program money bypasses state coffers altogether. In this tax-credit, corporations or individuals can offset state tax liability by donating to a private, nonprofit scholarship organization. The money from this fund is, in turn, awarded to families to pay for tuition at private schools.

(Anya Kamenetz. “Under DeVos, Here's How School Choice Might Work.” NPR. January 31, 2017.)

During her hearing, DeVos struggled to answer questions on relevant federal law pertaining to education, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees federal right of public education to children with disabilities. DeVos said the enforcement of federal law should be deferred to state and local districts.

Also during the hearing, DeVos was unable to distinguish between “proficiency” and “growth,” concepts that are crucial to a major education debate about the fairest way to measure student learning.

(Joy Resmovits. “Betsy DeVos squeaks through as Education secretary after Pence casts first-ever tie-breaking vote.” The Los Angeles Times. February 07, 2017.) 
Across the country on blogs, PTA listservs, social media, and emailed petitions, protesters feverishly denounced DeVos' nomination. In fact, hundreds turned out in her hometown of Holland, Michigan, recently to vehemently oppose DeVos taking the reins of the nation's schools. And it was reported that the automated Capitol Hill switchboard was so flooded with calls last week that it caused delays in the Senate's voicemail system.

(Safia Samee Ali. “Why Betsy DeVos is Riling up Education Advocates.” NBC News. February 07, 2017.)

But now, Betsy DeVos has been confirmed. And, in this Trumped-up political climate accenting the affirmation of wealth and appointment without experience, why should this surprise any of us? It is yet another sign that Washington these days is out of touch with reality.

Public school staffs are a major force with which to contend. I strongly believe the fights to privatize and to charter will cause a grass roots movement of parents and educators. American public schools are much more than strictly educational facilities. They are institutions that communities proudly identify as their own – places where students complete the socialization process, acquire a central heritage, and develop the spirit of competition. In short, public schools are indispensable.

If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools, they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals.”

-- Susan B. Anthony

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