I'm not sure what I can add to this debate about the recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the head of the U. S. Department of Education. Dudgeon is high on both sides. But I'm going to try.
First, a couple of things are pretty obvious.
- She has no (or, probably more accurate, very little--negligible) experience with public schools. As just about everyone knows--she did not attend public school herself--nor did her children. Moreover, she is in favor of charter and religious schools--in favor of for-profit schools. Yet, her task is to oversee a federal agency whose very purpose is to deal with something with which she is patently unqualified and inexperienced. (See below.) I don't think I know too many people in other professions and occupations who would happily accept as their leader someone as ignorant about that enterprise as DeVos is about public education.
- She obviously has had success in her family business. She's rich. But what has bothered me for a long time is the insidious notion that's been growing and flourishing in dark soil here for a long, long time--that if you're a success in business, then, ipso facto, you're qualified to oversee any sort of enterprise, whether or not it resembles in any fashion your own business. It's the hey-I'm-rich-so-I'm-right-about-everything fallacy. And haven't we learned over and over and over again that this fallacy is actually a Bizarro Midas Touch: Whatever gold the hand touches turns to dross?
- Her willingness to accept the nomination--and to endure all the humiliation and disdain that have ensued--must raise another question: Why does she want the position? Is her goal to be the nation's chief advocate for public education? Or is it to be the chief termite in the floor joists?
So many other things bother me about this appointment, as well--principal among them--How does a President look around the country--a country brimming with people who have devoted their careers to the public schools, to improving them and the lives of the families they serve--and say Betsy DeVos is the one!? She is the most qualified?!!?
How does a Senate look around and agree?!
I spent my entire professional life in schools--public (for about thirty years), private (about a dozen), higher education (public and private), and I have experienced firsthand, over and over, the sadness of having imposed upon my colleagues and me some daffy notion from some Daffy Duck (or Cluck) who knows a lot about, oh, widget-making, but not a thing about teaching-and-learning. The kids invariably suffer. It used to drive me mad, having to implement something from the far-from-fecund brain of someone who wouldn't survive ten minutes in an 8th grade classroom.
I've written here before--and recently, too--that what our public schools need is a vast infusion of money and talent and imagination. We have too many schools that are direly underfunded, that offer crumbling classsrooms, a dearth of supplies and technological possibility, depressed teachers, too few teachers, kids who lose hope with every tick of the clock. We still adhere to this insanely elitist notion that only wealthy communities can have good schools (this is what happens when local property taxes compose the largest chunk of funding).
If we're truly democratic--if we truly believe in equal opportunity, no matter where you're living--then we have to prove it, not just jabber about it. And I'm not at all sanguine about Betsy DeVos' commitment to any of this. So ... I would suggest that she spend half of every day in a District of Columbia public school, teaching a few classes about, oh, math or English or biology or whatever school subject she has mastered. Then I might take her words a little more seriously.
I could go on. I could wax eloquent about how the public schools (despite their many problems) have been the great engine of progress (and hope) in this country, about the dismal performance of most charter schools in my state (Ohio), about the short-sighted and insane notion of making schools for-profit, about the many disadvantages of on-line education, about the separation of church and state, about ...
Enough. I'm starting to sound more and more like a guy becoming a Grumpy Old Man--which, to be honest, all of this DeVos stuff has accelerated.
Just now I got on the Department of Ed webpage and found this as their "mission statement" (a term I abhor, by the way--link to the page):
ED's mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.
Congress established the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on May 4, 1980, in the Department of Education Organization Act (Public Law 96-88 of October 1979). Under this law, ED's mission is to:
• Strengthen the Federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual;
• Supplement and complement the efforts of states, the local school systems and other instrumentalities of the states, the private sector, public and private nonprofit educational research institutions, community-based organizations, parents, and students to improve the quality of education;
• Encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents, and students in Federal education programs;
• Promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through Federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information;
• Improve the coordination of Federal education programs;
• Improve the management of Federal education activities; and
• Increase the accountability of Federal education programs to the President, the Congress, and the public.