What does Secretary DeVos mean?
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UPDATE: Feb. 7, the Senate confirmed Devos’ nomination. The 50-50 tie was broken by Vice President Mike Pence.
As a prominent choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went viral during her confirmation hearing as she told Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (a staunch advocate for gun restriction after the school shooting at Sandy Hook) that schools needed to have guns in case of bears. While it’s easy to laugh, the prospect of a DeVos appointment carries a great deal of weight,especially for our community, which is dominated by a public school system.
DeVos is entirely unqualified for her position. She has never worked directly for a school; she has not previously worked much at all. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press described DeVos as a “lobbyist” who uses her status and extensive personal wealth to commandeer conversations about education in her home state of Michigan.
DeVos has served on the executive boards of various education-centric committees, including the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice and multiple PACs, including All Children Matter and the Great Lakes Education Project. She is also involved in the Michigan Republican Party and is a monetary benefactor for the GOP nationwide. She and her family have given Republicans more than $17 million, including a substantial contribution to the Bush campaign in 2004, and DeVos noted in an op-ed she penned that she did not part with her money selflessly: “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right.”
Henderson argues that one cannot describe DeVos as an advocate for children when, in reality, she is more focused on developing the “industry” of education. The DeVos agenda is all about charter schools, which dominate the Detroit school system. One can also operate a charter for a profit, which means academically poor schools remain in operation without strict regulation as long as they still make money.
DeVos has advocated for increased school choice, but districting and Detroit’s lack of accessible transportation has hindered those choices for many students. According to David Smith of the Guardian, DeVos has also lobbied on behalf of “vouchers”, a system that takes funding from public schools and taxpayers and funnels it into private schools. They are ideas that may certainly sound sane to a woman who has never attended a public school and has always lived comfortably.
In terms of effects, Henderson noted that while charter schools have grown “incrementally stronger”, many still closely resemble public schools and the range of competence from school to school is still varied.
Reactions to DeVos’s nomination in the city of Detroit were immediate. A particularly powerful response came from student Dannah Wilson, who wrote and delivered a speech that was shared by the American Federation of Teachers. Wilson described cramped classrooms, inadequate materials and a personal lack of satisfaction in her education due to the “naive and narrow policies of Betsy DeVos.” “My parent’s drive 165 miles a week for ‘quality’ education,” Wilson said, using air quotes.
Personally, as someone with close family in the Detroit area, listening to their visceral emotions towards her nomination certainly made me apprehensive.
So what does the idea of Secretary DeVos mean for us as students in Brookline? Brookline is drastically different from Detroit. Our education is stable due to a flush tax base and an established network of public schools. We have better access to those public schools due to careful districting and the existing transportation infrastructure. Our education is a right; most of us, I think, take for granted how lucky we are to have free public schools that are both accessible and stable.
I believe that where the DeVos policies may hit us hardest is through budgeting. The voucher system, if implemented as DeVos promises, will draw money away from Brookline public schools and transfer it to private institutions. (Henderson does credit Massachusetts in his article as a positive example of charter education).
If the high school’s budget is lowered, they may need to decrease the number of teachers, which would mean larger class sizes, fewer class offerings and possibly a less diverse staff. Resources would also be affected, meaning that torn-up copy of Twelfth Night you schlepped around your freshman year will never be replaced. Clubs and extracurricular activities would receive less funding from administration. Internal support systems, such as the math center, would also lose funding and staff, delivering a palpable hit to students who need academic support.
I think the effects will be tangible and noticeable; however, it is likely that Brookline’s affluence will prevent public schools from reaching the same level of disparity seen in Detroit. This is where it is vital that we recognize our privilege: compare old books to toxic mold and scalding geysers on the playground. If DeVos is confirmed on Tuesday (which Pence insists she will be), it is paramount that we work to ensure equitable education for children and adolescents across the nation.
As I have written before, I doubt this advocacy for human rights will be aided by the federal government. This must come from the ground up,from the community and from local legislature. The issues with education throughout the country must be solved through strength in numbers, and the perpetrators of these issues, including DeVos, must be held accountable no matter what their title is.
Every Republican senator (minus two) is planning on voting in favor of DeVos on Tuesday. Only one more defector is needed to tip the scale. Calling or emailing Republican offices could have a serious impact.