So, a few days ago, the controversial Betsy DeVos was confirmed for Secretary of Education. A Secretary of Education who has never set foot in a public school as an educator, student, or even parent of a student, who supports religious charter education (read: Christian). Her positions on education, not to mention her lack of experience, were so controversial that two Republicans "crossed party lines" and voted against her. The deciding vote was cast by our VP.
In my time on this planet, I attended eight brick and mortar schools (six public, two private), homeschooled myself, briefly homeschooled my children, and enrolled them in yeshiva under court order. I've seen a lot of schools. Ignoring some of the obvious problems (like DeVos's comments about guns in school being needed in case of bear attacks), here is why I find her appointment "problematic".
Private schools, public funds: DeVos is a strong proponent of "school choice," which sounds lovely but isn't. In practice, this means that parents can send their children to any school that has space, opt for publicly-funded charter schools, or take their cut of per-pupil funding and use it for private schooling. Again, all this sounds nice in theory. In practice? Well...
One of the last schools I attended was an all-girls boarding school in New England. During the summer before I attended, the main classroom building underwent a complete renovation. Well, almost complete. There were no built-in accommodations for anyone with a physical disability. No elevators. No automatic door openers. No ramps. Not even Braille on the classroom doors. And this was in 1996. The Americans with Disabilities act passed in 1990. The message was clear--disabled students were not welcome. (This "enlightened" attitude extended to mental illness. Several students going through mental health crises were quietly "counseled out.").
While it sounds great that parents can have access to any school for their children, in practice, parents are constrained by location, availability of transportation, knowledge of options and the time to follow through with applying to them, finances, and their children's academic performance and behavior. (Not too many parents in western Pennsylvania, for example, will "choose" to send their children to the Bronx High School for Science).
Public school, by definition, must take everyone who lives in their district. Private schools can cherry-pick based on student ability, family finances, lack of behavioral or emotional problems, parental involvement, etc. At least one yeshiva, for example, turned us away because I had taken out an order of protection, and I'm sure more than one turned us away because I came in as a single mother. So all that lovely school choice comes down to the schools doing the choosing. And this is in urban areas, where there are actually many schools. What happens in a rural area where the only remaining public schools convert to Christian-run charters? What about Jewish children? Or children whose parents are openly gay? What sort of "choices" will be available to them?
IDEA--Federal Protection Left to the States: During the confirmation hearings, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), asked Ms. DeVos about the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Ms. DeVos stated that this was best left to the states. I will repeat this. A federal law to protect children with disabilities is best left to the states.
IDEA is already problematic because it is an "unfunded mandate." Schools have to comply, but are not given the funds to do so. Moreover, students with disabilities are routinely stigmatized against, the idea being that they take time and attention away from "the kids who can learn." This leads, in part, to educational triage. Only students with the severest and most glaringly obvious disabilities receive assistance at all, while those with milder issues are left to flounder in classrooms without assistance. Moreover, attempts to "mainstream" often mean that students with disabilities are placed in regular classrooms with teachers that have no training in special education and a hostility to the disabled students. These children are then pegged as "unable to learn," "unmotivated," "lazy," or "behavior problems."
What will happen if this law is left to the states? Will some states choose to ignore it altogether? Will children with disabilities be excluded from the classroom altogether, at a point in history when they are only beginning to progress? Will they be shunted into "special education classrooms" that are little more than warehousing? Will geography determine access?
Curriculum Questions: I live in NY State, which has some of the strictest regulations for homeschooling in the USA. And I agree with many of them. Children have a right to be educated, and I believe that, at a minimum, the parents should be accountable for ensuring their children stay as close to grade level as possible. Imagine my shock, then, when dealing with the yeshiva system. My older daughter's social studies textbook in the second grade listed Ronald Reagan as "the current president" (this was in the 2014-2015 school year, so a bit outdated?). Their yeshiva teaches next to nothing in the way of history or science. (They get a science teacher every two weeks for an hour. That's 90 hours, or only 1/12 of the school year).
The lack of national curriculum prior to No Child Left Behind is not well-known. School boards have enormous power to decide curriculum. For example, in Massachusetts, I learned that Jamestown was the first European settlement in what is now the United States (it was actually St. Augustine), and in Nebraska, it was implied that FDR was evil incarnate. Once curriculum choices are left entirely to the schools, what will happen? Will schools decide not to teach algebra anymore? Will evolution be taught as scientific theory, or as mythology?
Looking Past K-12: When we think of "education," we often think of our neighborhood public schools. But public education includes publicly funded Early Intervention programs, Head Start, and public colleges and universities. Since Early Intervention is a program to assist infants and toddlers with developmental delays "catch-up" to their peers, the questions about that fall under my discussion of IDEA. But what about Head Start, UPK, and college? What happens to their funding?
Not every parent gets the luxury of staying home with their children during the pre-kindergarten years. I did, and it was a wonderful experience. But there are many parents who are working two and three jobs just to keep a roof over their families' heads. They can't read their children picture books, teach them the ABCs, or take them to parks and museums on a daily basis. For more affluent families, private preschools have been around for years. In 1965, Head Start was created as a means to provide some "catch-up" to the children of impoverished families who couldn't afford private preschools. The program was expanded in 1981, and today serves over 1 million impoverished children, who might receive no pre-school preparation otherwise. In an age of academic-based kindergarten, this preparation is crucial for success.
And then there is college. Funding for public colleges and universities has been drying up for years. The result is rising tuitions and a dearth of full-time professor positions, as retiring professors are replaced by poorly-paid adjuncts. Adjuncts hold the same degrees as professors, but are hired on a class-by-class basis with no benefits or job security. Many have to teach seven classes at three or four colleges just to survive. The real losers here are the students, who don't get any real attention from their overworked instructors. (It doesn't help that they have to juggle academic courseloads with one or more jobs.) As professor positions dry up, enrollment will decline at the graduate level. (This is already happening in law schools, as high tuitions are a dearth of jobs are leading people away from the legal profession). Moreover, as tuitions rise with limited return, how many students will even go to college anymore? What will happen to public funding for Head Start, college, and Early Intervention? And how will that affect education as a whole?