Betsy DeVos Derides Our System of Public Schools but Today’s School Closures Show Why the System Matters

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the flaws in the thinking of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  As you may remember, back in July, 2017, in a speech at the annual meeting of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council, DeVos declared:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…  ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’…  I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Well, right now we are watching DeVos’s theory play out. For legitimate public health reasons, public schools have been closed—whether for a few weeks or through the end of the school year—and we are relying on families. Right now, in DeVos’s words, “Families are on the front lines of this fight.”

One of the things we are discovering during our pandemic emergency is the significance—the meaning really—of the public education system we have created over the generations. We are being forced to recognize that our society’s systemic provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served.  Our public schools are the primary institution in our society responsible for securing the rights and addressing the needs of all children.

For Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk summarizes what will be some of the inevitable results of the widespread shutdown of public schools: “Education historians and researchers struggled to come up with a historical precedent to this brave new school-less world.  The only certainty, they said, is that the long-term impacts for students will be severe, and most likely long lasting.  Student learning will suffer in general—and longstanding gaps in performance between advantaged and vulnerable students will widen… a combination both of weakened instruction and the other social consequences of the pandemic.”  “While there’s little research specifically on pandemics’ effect on learning, research on adjacent topics—chronic absenteeism, the amount of learning time, online learning—is sobering.”

At the Los Angeles Times, several reporters collaborated to construct a report on challenges not only for students but also for teachers. They describe one fourth-grade teacher who, “is working hard to keep her students learning now that schools are closed. She shares detailed lesson plans on Google Drive, sends messages to families every day and delivers YouTube lectures from her home.  But only three or four of her 28 students accessed their schoolwork last week, she said.  Some don’t have computers and others are without internet access.  One student can only open assignments on her father’s phone when he gets home from work… (T)he reality is really complicated.  As teachers scramble to adjust to an entirely new world of education, they are coming up against significant barriers.  There is uneven access to technology, difficulties communicating with students and parents, and uncertainty about expectations at a time when many families are suffering… (T)eachers are struggling to get their students online—some children had never used the computers at home and many families don’t have internet access. In some cases, children in higher grades are now having to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work and are unable to dedicate time to their own schoolwork….”

While many school districts have invested in Chromebooks the schools are handing out to students to enable them to participate in the programs the same districts are struggling to provide online, many families have no broadband internet access at home. The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell provides interactive tables showing the disparities across Ohio’s  610 school districts in the number of families whose homes are wired for high speed internet.  It is not surprising that the three school districts the state seized for state takeover due to low aggregate student test scores are school districts where large percentages of families lack home internet access. In Youngstown the percentage of families without broadband internet access is 33.8 percent, in Lorain 35.5 percent, and in East Cleveland 46.1 percent. Children in families where there is no computer access frequently use the public library when homework assignments require them to use the internet, but, of course, today the public libraries are closed to prevent transmission of the virus.

A brief last week from the Brookings Institution describes how the digital divide is making the current school closures more complicated for the nation’s poorest families: “Among the many challenges—from providing meals for low-income students to finding child care for essential workers—relying on remote learning and online classes also exposes the country’s deep digital divides…  According to 2017 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 3.1 million households (14.1%) with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection at home. Though some of these families likely have a wireless subscription, these data plans aren’t sufficient for extended online learning. The transition to digital learning will be especially challenging within lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Broadband adoption rates in Black and Latino or Hispanic households lag behind white households by 6.8% and 3.4% respectively… Our own research shows that as neighborhood poverty rises, the broadband adoption rate falls precipitously…  As part of a recent project focused on the connection between broadband, equity, and health, Brookings Metro heard repeated stories of parents who have used patchwork solutions to overcome broadband barriers: taking their kids to McDonald’s after work for Wi-Fi access, or sitting outside the local library or even a gas station to connect.”

Schools and school teachers meet another urgent need that families cannot meet on their own. Teachers in the most personal way provide support not only for children and adolescents but also for their parents. Parents keep track of their children’s needs, academic progress and social adjustment through feedback from the child about what’s happening at school and also from updates by the teacher. But parents of disabled children count on the school for additional professional support. Public schools now provide services for 7 million students with disabilities under the requirements of the 1975, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the most poignant report I’ve read about the meaning for families of the widespread school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Valerie Strauss describe the unique challenges for school districts trying to provide necessary and appropriate services for special needs students. They report on a parent whose eighth-grade son on the autism spectrum is now missing the services his school provides: “At school, (he) has a huge support team: a vision therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, learning behavioral therapist, and various teachers in the classroom, adaptive special education, and special subjects.”

Meckler and Strauss continue: “The needs of students with disabilities vary. Some students struggle to use computers or need adaptive technology. Others depend on routines for mental stability, or rely on speech and occupational therapists who normally provide services during the school day. Many students have learning disabilities and need lessons to be modified, and some require adult support to focus on and complete their work… Some district websites and programs are not accessible to blind and deaf students.”

I hope we are paying attention today as the widespread closure of public schools highlights the importance of these institutions. What Betsy DeVos fails to understand is that educational justice for children can be realized only systemically.  Our public schools are not perfect, but over the years our society has created a system designed to guarantee services for children who bring myriad needs and who come from families facing inequality of opportunity.  Right now, if we pay attention, we can learn about the ways schools help close opportunity gaps.