School Choice & Charters Opinion

Betsy DeVos Is Just Plain Wrong

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 30, 2017 4 min read
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Betsy DeVos is attempting to reverse the federal position on civil rights by allowing “states to decide” whether private schools can accept federal dollars and discriminate against any students for any reason. Beware the rights of the disabled students. If she has her way, those private schools accepting federal dollars may not have to follow IDEA; again, leaving those decisions up to states. Regarding Title I funding, she answers in a confused manner.

In her first answer, the secretary said she believed high-poverty school districts do get more funding than wealthier districts, which is most often not true. In the second response, she said she believes high-poverty school districts get more federal funding than wealthier districts. That is not always true (Washington Post)

She also denied that shifting money from public schools as proposed in the budget to fund school choice trials will take money away from public schools. Obviously, it will. And finally, she refused to commit to a statement about whether private and religious schools that accept public funds would have to be accredited and/or be accountable in the same manner as public schools. In general, her ‘go to’ answer seemed to be “the states should decide” the rules and laws and “the parents should decide” which schools their children attend. Throughout our nation’s history, education was, indeed, mostly handled by the states. But, civil rights decisions and laws were a major factor in changing that. So, a return to the states would, naturally, provoke a direct conflict between the two.

Is This Public Schools?

Her position appears clear and consistent. What will we be doing while these disconnected, unrealistic, unfair, backward facing ideas are discussed, or even worse, put into place? The laws that have come to define what public education is are reflected in the actions of public educators and their leaders each and every day. In the past decades, public schools have increasingly welcomed and supported students who have developmental and mental health challenges. Students and parents who are gay or transgender have been offered a safe place to learn...or at least there is an effort to do so. Students who enter schools from other countries are helped to understand a new culture and learn a new language. Whether neighborhood or regional, schools over time represent the American melting pot history. Public schools have created the culture of welcome, inclusion, acceptance, and support that allows for all children to learn and learn well. They have held the key to realizing the American dream. At least, that was the story we told.

In DeVos’ model, parents should be able to choose if a child attending a ‘failing’ school can allow the child to attend a religious school or a private school. But what if the parent has a gender questioning child or a developmentally challenged child and the schools available either reject them or do not serve them because they don’t have to. This is not a new issue but it is still a problematic one. Choice for all children really belongs only to some.

Poverty and “Failure”

DeVos’ target is ‘failing schools’. Where are those failing schools? Does anyone know of a “failing” school in a high income area? No. “Failing” schools are in high poverty areas. Her administration colleague had a recent thought to offer on poverty. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson in a recent town hall meeting.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson -- whose budget to help low-income households would be cut by more than $6 billion next year -- added his own thoughts. He said in a radio interview that “poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind.”

So is the administration proposing school choice as a cure for the state of mind? Educators know that poverty is a state of life that traps children and families in its grasp and holds on with unrelenting force. Yes, it can take hold of generations. It is characterized by a lack of work, of money, of appropriate housing, of food, and for children, of preparation for entering schools. Educators know that children who live in poverty also too often live with violence in their midst and family members who are incarcerated. Yet, these communities are also places where the bonds of family and of faith take root and grow powerfully to support a resilience that allow some to escape. One person makes a difference to a child and a whole system makes a difference to a community. This is the place for public schools and their teachers and leaders. But, it is true poverty persists.

No Excuse for Failure

Educators will never toss up their hands and say, “We can’t educate these children. We simply do not have enough money.” Just as with shifting from 20th to 21st century teaching and learning, we need to look for those who are ahead of us on the path. Find schools in high poverty areas that have found success. Learn from them. Find business and higher education partners and develop meaningful partnerships. If there is physical space in the buildings, bring local social services into the building, perhaps health clinics as well. We cannot allow the new philosophy in Washington to change our ‘state of mind’. We believe in our purpose and in every child.


Representative from Massachussetts Katherin Clark questions Betsy DeVos


Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by HONGQI ZHANG courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.