Eulogy for Public Education

Well, Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education.  I’ll admit, I really had hope that we could stop this one.  I should have learned from the general election.  I should have learned that just when it looks like everything might finally go your way, that’s when shit inevitably hits the fan.  I was just as optimistic that we could actually stop DeVos as I was that we could stop Trump.  I read statement after statement from Democrat after Democrat, and I thought, “Alright, someone’s standing up for public schools.”  I saw Republican senators Collins and Murkowski promise to vote against DeVos’ confirmation, and I thought, “Hey, we might actually win this one.”  I heard about Senate Democrats’ plan to protest with a filibuster, and I thought, “Oh, shit, now it’s really happening.  We’re really going to do this.”  And we almost did.  But, of course, Mike Pence is why we can’t have nice things.  Thanks to a historic tiebreaker vote from our slimy, pernicious, anti-science, creationist Vice President, Betsy DeVos now runs the US Department of Education.  Here’s what that means:

It means that the woman charged with overseeing our nation’s public schools has never attended or taught in a public school or university in her life.  Not only that, she thinks public schools are a “dead end.”  She’s a billionaire proponent of “school choice” with no background in education, and she wants to use schools to “build God’s kingdom.”  If that last part sounds horrifying to you, it’s because you realize that in this country, we’re supposed to have a little thing called separation of church and state.  Mrs. DeVos doesn’t.  During her confirmation hearing, she was unable to answer Al Franken’s fairly simple questions about education policy.  When Maggie Hassan asked her about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she seemed unaware that it was a federal law, and said it should be up to the states to decide whether to follow it.  Perhaps the reason she was so hesitant to enforce IDEA was because she seems to know very little about how it works or what it entails.  Although she hasn’t stated outright that she doesn’t believe in evolution or climate change, her policies certainly won’t support teaching them in schools.  If Mrs. DeVos gets her way, more students will end up in religious and private schools that teach creationism and climate change denial.  During her confirmation hearing, she said that it would be “premature” for her to commit to enforcing the 2011 Title IX guidance on sexual assault in higher education.  Premature?  1 in 4 women on a college campus will be sexually assaulted.  Betsy, honey, enforcing Title IX is the exact opposite of premature; it’s long overdue.  Not a single Democrat voted yes on DeVos, but of the Republican senators who did (which was all of them except for Collins and Murkowski), 22 received significant donations from the DeVos family.  Our government literally just sold our public education system to the highest bidder, and that bidder was Betsy DeVos.

Mrs. DeVos has already gutted public schools in Michigan and replaced them with consistently under-performing charter schools.  In Detroit, parents and students definitely have choice when it comes to school, thanks to a large, DeVos-backed network of charter schools, but all of the choices are terrible.  DeVos’ charter schools in Michigan are undeniably failing–their test scores in math and reading are consistently well below the state average.  But she supports them because charter schools are an industry, and she can make money off of them.  And now she wants to do that nationwide.  Sure, there are excellent, high-performing charter schools out there, but they are the exception and not the rule.  Charter school proponents would rather hurt America’s kids than lose this lucrative opportunity to profit off of sub-par education.  Betsy DeVos has said that public education is “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market.  It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”  Let’s make one thing very clear here: School is not an industry, nor should it ever be treated like one.  It is a public good, and public goods don’t have to be profitable financially.  I can’t help but think of a scene from The West Wing.  Sam Seaborn, after writing a position paper supporting school vouchers and arguing with Leo McGarry’s daughter about the merits and drawbacks of public education vs. school choice, reveals that his true feelings on public schools are that “Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”  I don’t know how to do it either, but I do know that Betsy DeVos is not the answer.

So what do we do now?  Well, we do the only thing we can do, really: We continue to fight back.  We call our governors, our city councils, our state and county Boards of Education, and we tell them to protect public education in our cities, counties, and states.  We read up on IDEA, on Title IX, on all the pieces of federal legislation relating to education that Mrs. DeVos seems to know so little about, so that when she inevitably fails to enforce them, we are prepared to hold her accountable.  We recognize that school isn’t the only place where students learn, and we do our best to support community, after school, and adult education initiatives in our communities.  And most importantly, we don’t let this setback keep us down.  We’re going to have a lot of losses over the next four years.  This loss stings particularly hard, yes, but that doesn’t mean we give up.  It means we fight back.

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