Betsy DeVos Has It Backwards: It Takes Public School SYSTEMS to Serve Individuals

I hope Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education, carefully studied the photo essay in yesterday’s Washington Post–the story of Mya Fourstar, the high school sophomore basketball player from Frazer, Montana. It is the sort of story DeVos prefers—about an individual, a gritty young woman determined to make something of herself: “‘It’s really hard for anyone to get off the reservation. You don’t see it happen a lot,’ Mya said. ‘I think about my future a lot more than you could imagine. I think about it all the time.'”

“Basketball is an escape from the troubles surrounding her, a core part of her American Indian identity, and the heartbeat of Frazer, where the sport is a lifeline…. But basketball also makes Mya put more pressure on herself, to be found where college basketball players aren’t often recruited, to stand out on these pale-yellow plains and leave the Fort Peck Indian Reservation…”

Jesse Dougherty, the reporter, explains that, “Frazer (population, 362) is a highway-side town at the southern end of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 80 miles from the Canadian border and four-plus-hour drives from Billings to the southwest and Bismark, N.D. to the east.” Dougherty obviously brings a more national perspective to this story, as Billings and Bismark would not be likely to loom large on the mental map of a student from Frazer, located along U.S. Route 2—a little closer to Wolf Point (population, 2,621) than it is to Glasgow (population, 3,215).  One of Frazer’s basketball rivals is Scobey (population 1,017), 47 miles north of Wolf Point and 16 miles south of Canada.

I hope, if Betsy DeVos read this article, she picked up not only on the story of Mya, but also on the back story. Mya played basketball for her public middle school and now stars as a sophomore on her public high school team, whose games are played in the public school gymnasium where her grandmother—Fraser’s Headstart teacher, and her Aunt Sasha—Fraser’s mayor, cheer her on. Melanie Blount-Cole, Fraser’s public school superintendent, serves as the game’s scorer. When the Frazer Bearcubs girls’ basketball team travels, it is in a bus owned by the public schools.

Last July in a speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council, Betsy DeVos detailed her philosophy of education. It begins with parental choice (usually via privatized charters or vouchers to pay private school tuition): “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…“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.”

In Jesse Dougherty’s story about Mya Fourstar, it is pretty clear that school choice isn’t a realistic option. Mya’s high school serves 37 students this year, and it is far away from anyplace else: “The ride back after a game, in a boxy white bus with ‘Frazer Bearcubs’ striped across the side, cut down the middle of the reservation and through a peaceful night… Mya is accustomed to such late-night drives, surrounded by darkness aside from the few passing headlights, as Frazer travels at least an hour for most road games.”

Although it is true that Mya’s school can offer neither the advanced curriculum nor the range of activities and sports of an elite suburban high school, for Mya her public high school offers the best opportunity she has to begin carving a life for herself. The Montana constitution provides for and protects the provision of public education in Glasgow, Wolf Point, and even more remote places like Scobey and Frazer. Public taxes—in Frazer’s case on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, very likely federal impact funds—pay for the school and the gymnasium, the teachers and the coach, the books and school bus which are shaping Mya’s adolescence.

The only sort of privatization Betsy DeVos has promoted for a place like Frazer is an online charter—an e-school where students could study over the internet. But for Mya Fourstar the opportunity surely wouldn’t be the same. Mya’s possibilities as an individual are being shaped by the public school system established and supported by federal, state, and local governments.

Betsy DeVos has it backwards. This story about educational opportunity is the story of the public system that is necessary to serve individual students, parents, and families.