Public Schools Are There for the Students Who Need It Most; Under Betsy DeVos, That Could Change

This article was originally published in Extra Newsfeed.

Imagine a child enrolled in grade school, but with little support from home. For argument’s sake, let’s call him Devon. One or two of his parents might be around, but while they provide the basics of Devon’s life — a roof over his head, blankets to sleep under, a backpack to take to school — the emotional love isn’t quite there. While Devon might have parents who ask him how his day went, they aren’t the type to show up to parent-teacher conferences in an effort to improve his performance at school.

Chances are, Devon attends public schools, where he is guaranteed to receive some sort of attention, be it from teachers, counselors, or aides. One of the most common debates in American education today is to gauge just how effective these individuals are at making a difference in a child’s schooling, and there is constant deliberation over whether to gauge the student’s achievement based on proficiency (where students are assessed by their ability to perform at a proficient level by the end of a school year, regardless of their proficiency at the beginning of the year), or progress (where the students are assessed by how much more proficient they are at the end of the school year than at the beginning).

It’s this debate — proficiency vs. progress — that Betsy DeVos was virtually unaware existed when she was questioned by Senator Al Franken (a Democrat) during her confirmation hearings earlier in the week. An inexperienced cabinet member is one thing, but a cabinet member unaware of the major policies issues facing the federal agency she is poised to oversee is quite another. Her obvious lack of knowledge about basic issues facing the educational community is one of the main reasons why Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, both Republicans, broke the party line and voted against confirming Devos as Secretary of Education. It’s also the reason you’ve been hearing so much about a controversial nominee to a seemingly minor cabinet position.

Virtually all states have laws that require children to attend school through adolescence, most of which have their origin in preventing child labor back in the 19th century. Before states provided schooling free of charge, it was common policy for schools to be privately run by churches. This excluded the poorest of the poor from any chance at educating themselves, and likely sentenced them to a lifetime of manual labor.

In the 21st century, it’s the expectation of most citizens that our schools provide students with the tools they need to secure employment in the real world: an educated workforce is an empowered workforce, and we expect the best schooling for our children. Of course, the opportunity is always there to spend the extra money and send your kid to private school, but the expectation is that they will receive an equal education, if not better, than if they attended public school.

In the past thirty years, some states have been experimenting with charter schools — privately run institutions that are publicly funded — and which largely set their own curriculum. Wide latitude is given to allow these charter schools to educate their students as they see fit, but for the most part they still need to meet all state and federal educational standards.

Betsy Devos is an advocate not only of the charter school system, but of issuing publicly-funded vouchers to low-income students to allow them to attend private institutions. The problem is, if this system becomes widespread enough, all private educational institutions will eventually become public. Charter schools serve an important system in today’s educational paradigm, but that doesn’t mean that every public school should become a charter school.

Yet there’s a problem here: parents can easily enroll their children in the public school system, and it’s free. Private schools require an oftentimes lengthy application process, and can have significant waiting lists, both deterrents to potential students, especially if there is no adult to guide them through the process. Yet if a system of privatized institutions receiving public funding becomes widespread enough, then we eventually end up where we started: with a public school system, funded by taxpayer dollars.

Those who lose out in a system like this are children just like the fictional Devon — who do not have an adult to file the complicated applications to put them in charter schools, transfer them to a private institution, or simply to advocate on their behalf throughout their educational career. If public schools are increasingly privatized, those who need help the most will be the ones left behind.

When asked by Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia whether all kinds of schools — both public and private — that receive federal funds should be required to comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law which requires public schools to provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education”, she replied that “[she thinks] that is a matter that is best left to the states”. IDEA is a federal law, and cannot be decided by the states. Yet this inclination to allow states to dictate educational policy could make Betsy Devos a competent Secretary of Education — by reducing her role in formulating said policy.

The Department of Education under President Obama proved to be an assertive federal institution that had a heavy hand in dictating educational policy nationwide. While unqualified, there is no guarantee that Betsy Devos will move to assert herself in the same manner. The best-case scenario is that she carries through on her pledge to allow the states to dictate educational policy, and reduces the U.S. Department of Education to what Michael J. Petrilli of Fox News calls “the sleepy agency it was always meant to be.” Educational policy should be left up to educators, not business magnates: the widespread conversion of public institutions to privately-run, publicly-funded institutions is a disservice to those students who need the attention most.