February 8, 2017

Why we should worry about DeVos

I’ve seen any number of people writing that we shouldn’t worry too much about DeVos because the Secretary of Education doesn’t actually create the programs that impact kids. That the real work is done on the state and local level. That teachers will keep doing what they’re doing and that will be what keeps our public education going. Also that it’s not as though someone competent wants to dismantle public education.

Yes, but…

Perhaps the greatest tension in our democracy is between states’ rights and federal protections. Both are important, arguably crucial in education. I don’t love it when the federal government gets too involved in the particulars of curriculum, for example, because they don’t know a damned thing about teaching. Exactly how to teach biology may best be kept as a choice for the local biology teacher. How to best serve students with IEPs may best be kept as a school district choice—for example whether to have a target school in the district or whether to keep them in neighborhood schools. Here in Vermont, there is a lot of tension between state and local—how to equalize funds, how to keep costs down, whether the state can dictate the size of districts. The federal government would be wise not to get involved because Vermont education law is its own special beast and we’re dealing with a very different landscape than, say, Westchester County in New York or Chattanooga.

However, federal protections are important for students, especially vulnerable populations. The federal government can and should insist that all students with disabilities get a quality education. The courts had long since ruled on segregation, but the federal government needs to keep an eye out and continue to reinforce the importance of breaking down attempts at segregation. LGBTQ (and what’s with the IA?) rights should be federally protected. Also, while I hate the testing and the attempts at a national curriculum, perhaps there is something to be said for insisting that biology should be taught, although that kind of work is usually done at the state level with extra urging by the federal government.

What does this mean? It means that DeVos won’t take apart your public school tomorrow. Instead, she stands for a movement to turn all the power over education back to the states. She won’t dismantle the federal Department of Education tomorrow. She stands for a movement that says that department should do almost nothing because it should all be at the state level. Constitutionally, she is correct, but we have a long tradition of the federal government providing high level protections for our students and making sure quality education is available for all. When you start dismantling those protections, a great deal of discretion goes down to the state level.

OK, so that means state and local governments make all the choices. Yay! for state and local departments and boards of education. Well, yes. If you live in a community that values public education, perhaps you won’t see many choices. But stop and think. How much does your community really value public education, teachers, and students? Is it lip service, as in, “I support public education and our wonderful teachers, but…” and then you hear how times are hard and we need to control costs and the only way to do that is to cut teachers? Or do you hear, “I support diversity, but the school is getting crowded and the Metco kids we bus in from the city…”? I heard that at a PTO meeting in Newton, MA, and a lot of people started nodding. Sure, diversity is good, but it’s the first thing on the chopping block. Newton “values public education,” but you should have seen the fight we had to wage to override Prop 2 ½ to pay for necessary infrastructure work.

If we start rolling back protections and leaving it to state and local control, you will find a wider discrepancy between states and between localities. People already say, “Evolution is a theory, and it shouldn’t be in my schools.” That kind of talk will get a lot more power. When people say they want school choice, what that often translates to is the wealthier kids getting to pull their tuition dollars and take them elsewhere, leaving the more vulnerable populations with underfunded schools.

I’m not worried about my kids. They are already halfway through the system, and this will take a while. They’re also not in a vulnerable population. They aren’t special education students, and their parents can make sure they get an education. What I’m worried about is the babies being born now. The kids whose disabilities haven’t been diagnosed. The kids in poor neighborhoods whose funding will quickly bleed out before they even hit kindergarten.

Yes, teachers are often amazing. But they do not work in a vacuum. They work in a system. If it works right, it should be a system of federal protections, state policy, and local decisions. It already is filled with tensions and problems. Betsy DeVos’s philosophy of throwing it all back to the states and encouraging school choice will destabilize that system over the long term.

Also, last night I killed it with chicken dumpling soup and English muffins that I didn’t undercook. I only burned two.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply