As I look forward to my approaching high school graduation, I can’t help but peek back over my shoulder. These final months will cap off what has been 13 years in the public education system. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, I have progressed from learning the alphabet to discussing difficult 19th century writers such as Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, from memorizing addition equations to solving derivatives and integrals, and from learning to share toys to sharing ideas and collaborating with my peers.
I am a product of the public education system. I have grown alongside a set of peers, all of us sharing equal access to a free education. Public education is the most democratic way to provide opportunity to diverse individuals, and our government’s focus should be on protecting and reforming public schools. However, the public education system as we know it will be threatened as Betsy DeVos steps into the office of Secretary of Education.
After a 50-50 tie vote in the Senate, the closest vote ever for this position, Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie, confirming DeVos as Secretary of Education. As is evident by the close vote, she is one of the most controversial members of President Trump’s cabinet.
During her confirmation hearings, DeVos expressed numerous opinions that contradicted her previous actions as Republican Party Chairwoman and as a lobbyist in Michigan. She repeatedly claimed that she would hold schools accountable, yet has failed to do so in her past. DeVos made concerning statements about her recognition of the need for gun access at schools, stating, “I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” when referring to Wyoming schools. She also demonstrated her lack of knowledge about other key policies. She did not understand the differences between growth and proficiency standards, the policies for education for students with disabilities and school accountability. She has shown confusion around subjects that will be critical for her to understand in order to lead the nation’s school system.
DeVos has no experience attending or running public schools, nor has she ever held an elected office. Even if her proposed plans have potential, she does not have the experience or leadership capabilities to enforce regulations and work cooperatively to create change. Although she personally opposed President Trump’s rollback of the federal guidance protecting transgender students’ rights to school bathrooms, she acquiesced after brief resistance. In her short time in office, she has shown that she will not have the ability to lead the nation in a movement towards better education.
The public education system should be one of most honest bureaucracies within our democracy—it should have the primary goal of educating children to prepare them to be good citizens and have opportunities in the future. There are currently flawed incentives surrounding standardized testing within the public school system. However, these issues need to be addressed directly rather than avoided through the creation of schools with similar problems.
DeVos is an advocate of school choice and the voucher system, which allows students to use public funding to attend the school of their choice, whether it be public, charter or private. This in turn redirects tax payers’ dollars to private institutions. While DeVos plans to give states autonomy in passing voucher laws, President Trump has proposed plans to invest 20 billion dollars in voucher systems nationwide. These programs, which would privatize education alongside DeVos’s support for for-profit institutions, would detract from the democratic nature of public education.
The adverse results of these school choice programs have been demonstrated by the Michigan charter school system where DeVos had great influence pushing for privatization of the public school system. She and her family donated millions of dollars to expand the charter school system in Detroit, but many of these schools were unsuccessful, only minimally improving students’ low test scores. According to a study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), over half of charter school students’ performance growth was not above traditional public schools. Also, 63 percent of charters in Michigan did not perform better than public schools in math. This is not due to the fact that charter schools in general are ineffective, but because this system in particular was left unregulated and unaccountable. If DeVos was to propose similar policies to those she lobbied for in Michigan, and fail to hold these schools accountable, public education across the country would likely suffer.
I have been lucky enough to attend schools in a community that supports public education. It provides excellent teachers and funding to support all students with efforts such as the 2011 passing of Measure B generates funding for the Tamalpais Union High School District. Ninety-five percent of students believe that Redwood has given them an opportunity to pursue a good education, according to a February Bark survey. Because Redwood provides an exceptional education, a majority of students, including myself, are content attending public school according to the same Bark survey. Though the quality of education is difficult to express numerically, Redwood’s can be reflected by the fact 90 and 91 percent of Redwood students are proficient in English and math respectively on the College Readiness Index.
However, many public schoo ls do not receive equitable funding within districts. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “40 percent of schools that receive federal Title I money to serve disadvantaged students spent less state and local money on teachers and other personnel than schools that don’t receive Title I money at the same grade level in the same district.” Rather than addressing these issues through reforms and working on the schools we have, DeVos’ voucher systems will magnify this inequity between schools. They will take funding away from America’s most vulnerable schools and make the divide between student opportunites larger. Though private and religious schools provide an alternative to public schools, they should not be funded by public dollars through the voucher system.
It is easy to feel disheartened by the fact that the individual leading the public education system does not support it and could alter the futures of American youth. However, her confirmation has caused greater support for public schools within smaller communities with the realization that what we have often taken for granted could be threatened. It has also raised discussions about the best way to approach education. Communities have the power to support and prioritize public education, holding schools accountable for the success of students within the district. Our community, and communities across the country need to do their best to support our public schools and students, and ensure that a lack of leadership does not alter students’ futures.