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What does our new Secretary of Education really mean for public schools?

On January 21st I dedicated my Women’s March to public education

Last week, in possibly the most contentious cabinet confirmation of the past decade, Betsy DeVos became the new Secretary of Education.

If you have been on the internet at all in the past few weeks you’ve probably heard a couple things about DeVos:

While these things are all different levels of upsetting/entertaining they are not as important as this:

Betsy DeVos can’t do shit to impact the quality of education- if we don’t let her

If you didn’t know- in addition to being a full time software engineer at Microsoft I am also a part time volunteer high school teacher (shout out to the amazing TEALS program)

The one time I convinced my students to take a photo with me

As someone who spends every morning working in our public schools, I thought it would be a good idea to help us all understand what exactly the “Secretary of Education” is- and how having someone like Betsy in that role is going to impact our students.

Let’s start with what the Secretary of Education can actually do. The Secretary of Education runs the Department of Education which…

  • establishes policy for, administers and coordinates most federal assistance to educational institutions
  • collects data on US schools
  • enforces federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights

Education is almost entirely governed by the states. State governments individually decide what is going to be taught and how it will be tested. The Department of Education doesn’t even govern accreditation. What does the department of education actually do? Well, they decide who gets what federal funding. How important is that federal funding?

For example, the Seattle School District’s budget is about 6–8% federal funding.

6.7% of $789.7 million is $52.9 million annually

I am not trying to say Federal funding isn’t important, $52.9 million dollars is nothing to turn your nose up at. However, I find putting all this in context is rather comforting. Now that we know what Mrs. DeVos actually has control over let’s talk about why she is a horrid nightmare of a pick for this role.

Betsy DeVos is a huge proponent of School Choice- the idea that your tax dollars should go wherever your child does, even if that is to a private school. This is accomplished through either Charter Schools or Voucher programs. Why is it a problem if we free people up to let their tax dollars go to non public schools?

  1. Rarely are these the kinds of schools that need that funding, so it takes it away from public schools who desperately need it and gives it to those that don’t, like a sick reverse-robin hood.
  2. Because these schools are not public, they are not held to the same educational standards as public schools. Charter and private schools have almost complete freedom to make up their own standards. While some Charter schools are high quality, as it turns out most of the schools DeVos so enthusiastically supported in her home state of Michigan recorded student test scores in reading and math below state averages. This is because those schools, unlike fully public schools, are not in danger of losing funding if they do not meet federal standards.
What happened when Senator Tim Kaine pressed Mrs. DeVos about whether schools that receive public funding should have “equal accountability”. I can only assume she was experiencing a glitch in the Matrix.

Letting public dollars flow into private institutions leaves public school students, already grossly under resourced, with even less money to go around. It also lets parents and these private schools put “special interests” (read: “religious interests”) ahead of quality of education.

Proponents of School Choice say this is an unfair argument- that it’s about giving parents freedom, it’s not about religion. The reality is that 85% of private schools are religious and vouchers are often used as a way to circumnavigate the limitation on public funding of religious institutions. Still don’t believe me? In her own words:

Interviewer: “But wouldn’t it have been easier to simply fund Christian, private schools and be done with it…”
DeVos: “… our desire is to be in that Shfela (area of land in Israel where Christians and pagans overlap), to confront that culture in which we all live today in ways in which will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom…”
Interviewer: “Some people would say why waste your dollars on non christian things… why get involved in politics?”
DeVos: “…the concept of really being active in the Shfela of our culture, to impact our culture, in ways that are not the traditional funding Christian organization route, but in that may have greater Kingdom gains in the long run by changing the way we approach things… such as the system of Education”
Source material for quote, a 2001 interview after a Christian conference. It goes into depth about how they see the Shfela as an analogy for how they want to impact broader culture outside Christian communities. Audio obtained by politico. Full article

Mrs. DeVos has argued that Charter schools and vouchers will benefit the least fortunate- empowering them to choose a school that better serves their needs. That would be lovely for sure! Unfortunately, the way vouchers work is such that the public money those students would bring to those schools is not enough, and it is extremely unlikely that the least fortunate students will be able to afford that extra tuition.

For years republicans have talked about how broken the public school system is and are desperate to pull their children out of it. They talk about crime and poor teachers (helpful op-ed from Fox), but what they don’t talk about is how to fix our public schools. They say instead we should privatize school- create competition. This sounds nice, but the fact of the matter is that education is a human right, and needs to be provided at no cost to the student, something we cannot entrust to the private sector. Yes, public schools are no where close to meeting our student’s needs right now, but rather than let them die- it is time for us to invest and help them grow to be the institutions our students deserve.

So what can you do? Here’s a short list to get you started:

  • Stay informed and vote to support public schools. Check out Stand Up 4 Public Schools, an initiative run by the National School Boards Association, with tons of resources on how to get informed and get involved.
  • Support your teachers! Pay attention to your local teachers union and make sure you support their efforts to get teachers a fair wage and adequate classroom resource support. Check out the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association
  • Get involved in your local public school. Are you a parent? Actually go to PSA meetings. Not a parent? Volunteer! Schools often need involved adults to help coach teams, run fundraisers, tutor students, coordinate after school events and so much more. I suggest starting with your school district’s web page (Seattle) and then picking a school and simply calling or emailing- schools are always happy to have people reach out!

Note: all school time is volunteer time, and eligible for employee matching dollars if that is something your employer offers. I typically spend 10 hours per week at a school- last year Microsoft made a $9000 donation on my behalf because of that time.

  • Donate! All public school contributions are tax deductible. Check out DonorsChoose.org for some exciting things to be a part of :)
Let’s get to work!

Have another way to help out a public school? Are you an educator with an ask of the community? Are you a proponent of School Choice and want to tell me how it’s going to save our schools? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Keep an eye out for more posts from Kasey every other Tuesday as she tells stories from both the classroom and the tech industry. Next post coming 2/28/17