Education is a huge part of our family. For starters, I entered teaching as a teaching assistant at the University of Arkansas ten years ago, and I entered public education in 2010. As both a public school teacher and an adjunct faculty member, I have seen public education from every angle. In addition, I have two children in school, two more speeding toward their first day of kindergarten, and a son who will inevitably enter a dramatically different school system than the one we are familiar with today. All this to say, I have had one ear trained on the Betsy DeVos nomination/confirmation hearing since November.
If you spend much time researching Betsy DeVos, you’ll discover plenty of articles detailing everything from her woefully deficient experience with public education to the alarmingly disparate responses she provided during her confirmation hearing. At the risk of being redundant, I’ll summarize:
Betsy DeVos never attended public school, and neither have her children. In fact, she would be the first education secretary who has zero experience with public education, either as a student or as a parent. She’s a remarkably controversial nominee, both because she lacks experience and because she has been an outspoken supporter of “school choice.”
The principle of school choice, or the voucher system, is that parents should have the ability to choose the schools their children attend. That, in itself, doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. Where the idea breaks down is that both private and charter school systems operate outside state regulation (I’ll get into why this is dangerous later).
Additionally, DeVos’ confirmation hearing was a hot mess. Bernie Sanders called her out, asking her directly if she would have been nominated were she not a multi-billionaire. Tim Kaine posed a question about IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which highlighted that DeVos didn’t know a) what IDEA guarantees, or b) IDEA is a federal law. She also admitted that she was unfamiliar with the debate about measuring growth vs. measuring proficiency, and suggested that guns should be allowed in schools because some schools must defend themselves from grizzly bears (yes, this is real).
Why does this matter to me?
From a career standpoint, I’m essentially watching someone with no understanding of public education interview for a job overseeing my entire industry, an industry which she has repeatedly argued in favor of dismantling. Should she get her way, DeVos could privatize education, eliminating any sense of job security for teachers and potentially deregulating a standard base salary for employees in public education. Since this is our sole source of income, I’m intensely worried about what DeVos’ confirmation might mean for our family.
Philosophically, I’m opposed to the idea of school vouchers because they further reinforce a system which already under-serves low-income communities and people of color. I’m even more opposed to school systems which have the freedom to accept and expel students without cause, as this undermines the idea that schools should work alongside parents and disguises failure through targeted expulsion just before testing (if this seems far-fetched, consider that it’s so common in public education that teachers have adopted a euphemism for the practice: brain drain).
The real question, though, is why I would oppose more freedom and control over my children’s education. To answer this question, let me first share an anecdote about our experience with a charter school this past school year:
Our oldest boy, Noah, has severe ADHD and our oldest girl, Audrey, struggles with reading. We were frustrated with what we saw as a lack of diligence at their elementary school and decided to enroll them in a local charter school. This school promised to be a haven for students with ADHD, and the controlled enrollment figures meant that Audrey would be able to get the individualized attention she requires to succeed.
At first, everything was perfect. The teachers were engaged and communicative. Noah showed remarkable improvement in his new setting, and he advanced through the curriculum quickly. Audrey was excited to go to school and showed improvements in reading almost immediately. They even began taking sculpting classes once a week after school. In short, we were ecstatic.
Three months into the school year, we noticed sharp changes in Audrey’s attitude toward school, as well as a dramatic increase in the amount of work sent home for her to complete. This was surprising to us, as one of the tenets of this particular charter school was a commitment to completing all work during the school day or saving it for the next day. Their ideology was rooted in the belief that young children were in school long enough; they didn’t need to continue working when they got home.
Around this same time, we were contacted by a fellow parent who shared with us that her daughter was distressed and no longer wanted to go to school because Audrey’s teacher routinely yelled at the class, going so far as to tell the students that they made her want to quit and singling out specific students, proclaiming that those students were “not her favorites.” As you can imagine, I was confused and upset to hear these things, but Audrey insisted that she was happy at her new school.
A week or so later, Audrey informed us that she was upset about something her teacher had said, but she was hesitant to tell us because the teacher had ordered the students not to discuss the matter with their parents. Her reasoning: she “didn’t want 44 emails from parents.” Eventually, Audrey did tell us what the teacher had said: she would be passing out note cards the following day, and any student who received seven note cards would be removed from the charter school.
The following day, the teacher elaborated that the note cards would be handed out for misbehavior. I thought through every possible reason that Audrey’s teacher might have had for asking her not to be honest with us, and for sending her home in such a state of anxiety regarding her place at the charter school.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that, regardless of the intent, it is categorically unacceptable for a teacher to encourage dishonesty between students and parents. This put my daughter, who is only eight years old, in an impossible situation. No matter what she did, she believed that she was breaking someone’s trust. I could not continue to give her teacher the benefit of the doubt.
From my perspective, she was struggling to manage her classroom. Her initial reaction was to guilt students, alienating them and pitting them against one another by openly discussing “favorites” and making them feel that their behavior was making her regret her decision to teach them. When that was ineffective, she turned to fear, developing a system in which students are in a constant state of fear that any misbehavior will result in expulsion.
I reached out to the principal regarding my concerns, asserting that hers were unacceptable practices in any classroom, that I believed the teacher’s actions were manipulative and bordered on emotional abuse. Regardless of her situation or her struggle to develop rapport with her students, her behavior had to be addressed and corrected immediately. At the very least, I believed that Audrey’s teacher should be made to apologize to her classes, and to the parents of her students.
The principal was adamant that the only way to resolve my concerns was through a face-to-face conference, even though I had repeatedly informed her that meeting in person was impossible for me at the time. I had hoped that the charter school would be, at the very least, understanding of the circumstances of its parents and willing to work together to address issues. Instead, I was informed that I had failed to address my concerns in the appropriate manner.
After several exchanges, the principal simply stopped responding to me, both via email and over the phone. I then contacted the Board of Directors concerning my frustrations, most particularly that the principal was determined not to share either the context of the teacher’s comments or the outcome of her conversation with the teacher.
This is where things got interesting. I began digging around for information about the charter school, only to find that its governing body was the foundation formed to begin the charter school, and the hierarchy of authority was a circle within the school itself. The principal acted as the superintendent, and several teachers sat on the board of directors for the school.
According to the Texas Education Agency, my only recourse was to appeal to the board of directors, yet the board of directors was the group I was attempting to resolve a grievance over. Basically, I had no avenue to file a formal complaint or push for any resolution. To make matters worse, the principal was clearly aware that we could not take our frustrations to any formal body and cut off all communication.
So, what’s the point? Why did I bother to share such a lengthy anecdote as our nation debates (or laments) the nomination of Betsy DeVos?
Because I know, from my experience as both an educator and a parent, that the voucher system is inherently flawed. I know that states cannot be left to regulate and monitor school systems, or Texas history books will be further gutted of factual information and creationism will be taught as scientific theory. I know that students with disabilities comprise more than 25% of any given school, and a voucher system will categorically fail them.
If Betsy DeVos is confirmed and she is able to proceed with her vision of privatized education, we will see an already struggling education system utterly destroyed. Our kids will suffer; mentally, emotionally, socially, and economically. If we mean to protect them, to serve them, to advocate for them at every turn, we must make our voices heard. We must demand an education system which serves every student equally, and which protects them from discrimination in any form. We must show them that there are times which call not for gentle exits into that good night, but for rage. Which refuse the dying light.
Now … now is a time for rage.
Originally published on Dad Arms.
Photo credit: Getty Images