Uh-oh! Last week Betsy DeVos got in trouble again. Every time she speaks about her work at the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos gets herself in trouble. We’ll see if it happens again today as she testifies in Congress before the House Education Committee.
A little review: The last time DeVos embarrassed herself was in March, when she went on 60 Minutes, where she told Leslie Stahl how education should be improved: “What can be done… is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids… Families that don’t have the power…. and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there. I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices. We need all parents to have those choices.” After Stahl followed up, asking DeVos about how to improve the public schools in the neighborhoods where families live, DeVos pronounced her standard, convoluted answer: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in… school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.”
Last Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the same day North Carolina’s public school teachers were protesting in Raleigh about their salaries and state per-pupil school funding which remains lower than before the Great Recession in 2008, DeVos went to New York City, where she spoke to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes as an organization “which supports charities that work with the children of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.”
Not surprisingly, last week in her NYC address, DeVos extolled religious education. In this speech, however, she went a little farther than usual to denigrate public schools and explain her own commitment to the rights of what she believes is society’s primary institution—the family: “Pope Leo the 13th wrote: ‘The contention that the civil government should—at its option—intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.’ Pope Leo was right! Government can’t know the needs of individuals better than a parent, a pastor or a friend. That’s why, when it comes to education, the family is—and always will be—the ‘first school.’ Parents hold the inalienable right to decide what learning environment best meets their children’s individual needs… There are many in Washington who seem to think that because of their power there, they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home; the child becomes a constituent and the state replaces the family.”
As we have learned, DeVos is an educational libertarian who disdains the role of government. You’ll remember that back in 2015, in another speech, DeVos declared: “Government really sucks.”
DeVos typically presents her commitment to school choice in the language of parents’ rights. What she always neglects to acknowledge, however, is that public schools are the institution through which our society can protect parents’ and children’s rights through civil law—by ensuring that public schools must serve poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. And in situations where government fails to protect the rights of children, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide. There are legal mechanisms in place to ensure that families can secure the services to which their children have a right: elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts. Laws and pubic oversight are the way government protects parents’ rights.
You may remember that in the March, 60 Minutes interview , Leslie Stahl also asked DeVos whether as Secretary of Education, DeVos had ever visited struggling public schools for the purpose of investigating strategies to improve the way those schools serve children. DeVos confessed that she has never “intentionally” visited struggling public schools: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.” Stahl challenged, “Maybe you should.” And DeVos confessed: “Maybe I should. Yes.”
However, during her trip to New York City last week, DeVos chose not to visit any public schools. In the nation’s largest public school district, DeVos could easily have arranged to visit any kind of public school—schools that serve our nation’s poorest children and other schools that serve the privileged—high and low scoring schools—racially and economically integrated or racially and economically segregated schools. She could have visited some of the nation’s model full-service, wraparound Community Schools, which feature child care and social services for families along with medical, dental and mental health clinics right at school. But instead DeVos looked for her favorite kind of schools, religious schools that are not affected by the laws and regulations she is charged, as Secretary of Education, with implementing.
Valerie Strauss describes the schools DeVos visited: “DeVos, a longtime supporter of religious education and public funding of religious schools, visited two orthodox Jewish schools, the elite Manhattan High School for Girls and the Yeshiva Darchei Torah Boys School. The schools did not appear on her official schedule until reporters asked about her New York trip.”
What should be our reaction? The Washington Post‘s Helaine Olen believes that, despite our exhaustion from months’ of tracking DeVos, we still need to summon outrage: “While in New York, DeVos did not visit a single public school… DeVos, however, did make time to tour a pair of private Orthodox Jewish day schools. She also made time to speak at a breakfast sponsored by two charities that promote Catholic parochial education. Let me repeat that. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the nation’s largest public school district, one responsible for educating 1.1 million students annually, and didn’t bother to check out even one public school. What could she be thinking? According to the Education Department’s own data, there are more than 50 million students attending U.S. public schools during the 2017-2018 school year. At last count, only 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren—about 5.7 million—attend private schools… If DeVos gets her way, the public-education system in the United States would be smaller, funded less, and all around worse than it is now. DeVos doesn’t want to inform herself on the full range of problems facing American education. She thinks she already knows the answers—and those answers, just coincidentally, coincide with her own religious and conservative political views. That she is secretary of education is nothing short of an abomination.”