We’re going on a month now since Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education. The month has provided a scary, and at times surreal, introduction to the woman who is now responsible for America’s public schools. If it hasn’t seemed scary and surreal to everyone, maybe that’s because not everyone is a public school teacher or parent. But, if that’s the case, please pay closer attention.
You see, I’m neither of those things either. I don’t have children, and I’ve spent my entire career teaching in Catholic schools. Still, I find everything about DeVos deeply and truly disturbing. Let’s start with the fact that she doesn’t really believe in public education. I don’t need to have a child in public school to find that disturbing. I wouldn’t have needed to grow up in a family full of public school teachers (although I did) to find that disturbing. I just have to know that most children in our country are educated in public schools, and those children deserve to have someone at the top who believes wholeheartedly in providing them with the best education possible rather than promoting her own business interests. (If you think that isn’t what she’s doing, just Google her business holdings.)
Then, of course, there is DeVos’s troubling lack of understanding of the intersection of education and race. Whether it’s her refusal to acknowledge the de facto segregation that exists in so many cities neighborhoods, and therefore their public schools, to her blatantly ignorant comment about HBCUs being the first example of “school choice,” it’s hard to tell if this is just ignorance or ingrained racism. It’s scary either way. Our public schools ought to be the places we can fight against the racism that is becoming more accepted in our society; that will be hard to do without support from the top.
And then there are her comments about teachers. Here are just two examples. First, there is the 2015 speech in which she said that teachers “should be easier to fire.” For any of us hearing in Wisconsin reading that, it presages a coming storm because it was one of the things we heard over and over during the Act 10 battles. Despite the recent articles that seek to make us believe that Act 10 didn’t really have that much of a negative effect on public school teachers, I have a few family members that would beg to differ. Second, there is her first visit to a public school after her confirmation. It didn’t go well, and in her comments afterward, she talked about teachers being in “receive mode,” waiting to be told what to do. I hesitate to speak for teachers everywhere, but I think I might be speaking for just a few when I say, “No, Mrs. DeVos, we’re not waiting for you to tell us what to do. If you had ever actually worked in education, you might understand that.”
So yes, I find Betsy DeVos frightening, and I think you should too. But sometimes fear can galvanize us to work for change, and I really hope that’s where many of us are headed.