An open letter to Betsy DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

Your nomination for education secretary sparked conversations in every hallway of my school. The dialogue intensified after your senate confirmation hearing. Like my colleagues, I didn’t like some of your answers. I find it troubling that you appeared unfamiliar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I wish you would have more clearly articulated the difference between academic growth and performance. Your Grizzly Bear example was bizarre.

The media calls your agenda “radical” and “revolutionary,” but your policies aren’t new. Charter schools have existed since 1992. As a student in Northeast Ohio, I watched legislators implement a voucher program in Cleveland in 1995. In North Carolina, where I now teach, I’ve seen state legislators lift the cap on charters and expand voucher programs, known locally as “Opportunity Scholarships.”

The results you seek by expanding school choice programs aren’t new, either. There will be success stories, but also white flight, resegregation and crippling financial ramifications for public school districts that still serve the overwhelming majority of our nation’s students. It’s already happening in my state. Educational opportunities are not significantly better now than they were ten years ago. They’re just different.

Despite my skepticism, I believe you can do great things. As you plan your first moves, consider a few that would silence your critics.

First, serve the whole system. The vast, vast majority of America’s children (85 percent, per the Dept. of Ed) attend traditional public schools. The same will be true four, even eight years from now. Pushing to expand school choice programs without also working to improve traditional public schools would be a disservice to the more than 50 million children nationwide who attend them.

Next, be transparent. Private schools are not inherently more effective than public schools. Require them to show evidence of rigorous academic standards. Create an accountability model that is accurate and valid but does not stifle innovation. Evaluate all schools using both performance and growth measures. Help parents know how and why a private school is the absolute best way for their children to succeed. Ultimately, if you’re going to use tax dollars to pay private school tuition, you must make private schools less private.

Finally, help us help you. Improving outcomes, especially for low-income students, is really, really hard. Identify the outstanding educators doing it in all kinds of schools. Individuals like the teacher in my district who recruited alumni and community leaders to help launch a distinguished speaker series like the one that inspired him in college. Or the team of science teachers who come in early and stay late searching for methods to help students exceed their expected growth on the state biology test. Or the social studies teacher that partnered varsity basketball players with elementary school students to read books together and talk about decision-making. Acknowledge the work they’re doing and help build a platform for great teachers to scale their models and influence policymakers without leaving the classroom.

Parents, friends and family members have shared with me their opinions of our education system. Everyone seems to know more about choice now than they did before. Even my students can explain the difference between traditional, charter and private schools. We’re a more informed and engaged community than we were three weeks ago, and that’s a good thing.

Help me facilitate more positive conversations by shifting the dialogue away from donations and inexperience and instead focusing on how and where you plan to make my students’ futures more bright. Students like my newspaper editor, who will soon decide which student loans will best supplement her scholarship offers as she becomes the first member of her family to attend college next year. And my brilliant freshman, who arrived in the US last year and needs more practice with the English language to reveal his intelligence in standardized test scores. And my sophomore with severe ADHD, whose grandparents help me search for new ways to remediate his second-grade reading level and help him comprehend high school textbooks. Do everything in your power to educate whomever walks through my classroom door and provide the opportunities they need to lead productive, happy lives.

In his inaugural address, President Trump said America “has an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” I’ll spare you the examples of rising graduation rates and math and science test scores despite decreased per-pupil spending, larger class sizes and rising college tuition rates, as I’m sure we agree that his comment both oversimplifies and misrepresents our education system.

Pragmatism is a tough sell these days, but here’s hoping the defining moments of your term as secretary are yet to come. May we someday forget the noise that surrounded your confirmation and instead feel proud of the support you delivered to vibrant communities like mine.

Sincerely,

Bryan Christopher

English Teacher

Durham, NC