An Open Letter to Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, re: the Nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education

Dear Senator Whitehouse,

I am writing as your constituent, as a long-time resident of Cranston, RI, as a parent of two young adults who graduated from Cranston Public Schools, as a retired teacher from the RI School for the Deaf, and as a current after-school tutor. I have been researching the “reforms” perpetrated on America’s public schools by both the Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Obama (Race to the Top) administrations since I retired in 2011. As a life-long Democrat, I was dismayed and deeply disturbed that egregious changes were pushed on public schools by the Obama administration with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. I am speaking primarily of the Common Core State [sic] Standards and the PARCC testing, as well as the shaming of public school students, teachers, and schools as “failing” due almost exclusively to poor scores on fatally flawed standardized tests. This has been a travesty with exponentially harmful results.

Now that we are faced with the potential of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, my level of dismay and disturbance has deepened. Ms. DeVos never attended a public school, has never worked in a public school, and has never sent her children to a public school. She has benefited from inherited wealth through her father and her husband. I in no way begrudge her her fortune, though it is galling that one can access huge amounts of money without having personally worked for it. Nor do I challenge her right to give money to the causes that she believes in. However, I have to draw the line when her modus operandi has been to use her (unearned) millions to influence public policy to align with her personal belief system. (See

and here) This meddling by millionaires should not be tolerated in a democracy.

Ms. DeVos’s views on public schooling are an open book. She considers “government schools” to be a monopoly, and to be a failing one at that. Granted that there are deep problems with many of our public schools, problems that are negatively affecting the children and families served by them. But many of these problems have been exacerbated during the last 15 years by the under-funding of schools, so that the necessary resources are not being provided, and at the same time by pursuing an ill-conceived agenda of test prep/test/and punish, which causes more harm than good.

The mantra of “failing schools” has been taken up by both right wing Republicans and left wing Neoliberals. (bipartisanship for the wrong reasons) Their antidote includes these remedies: more rigorous standards, harsher discipline, more frequent testing with high stakes attached, and alternate schooling, including charter schools, choice to attend a private or parochial school on taxpayer funds, and online learning. These “choices” have not been proved to be successful on any level. In fact the research shows that they are counter-productive. Yet according to Betsy DeVos’s history and public comments, this is the agenda that she will be proud to promote.

Someone needs to stand up for the protection of the public institution of publicly funded, transparent, and accountable neighborhood schools. America’s students need and deserve a person in the influential position of Secretary of Education who has made a career of developing expertise in the best ways to understand the learning needs of our diverse population of students and to implement policies that promote the well-being of all of our children. America is a diverse society, and our challenge is to empower children and youth to become thoughtful and compassionate adults who will complement each other’s differences to ensure a stable and vibrant society. What we absolutely do not need is an everyone-for-yourself vision of sectarian silos promoted by individual “choice.”

A critique of Betsy DeVos’s likely plans for the nation’s schools, based on her herculean efforts to date on behalf of charters and choice, was well expressed by Rebecca Mead in the December 14, 2016 issue of The New Yorker: “Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools”

“One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness. How have such DeVos-sponsored initiatives played out thus far in her home state? Earlier this year, the Detroit Free Press published the results of a yearlong investigation into the state’s two-decade-long charter-school initiative—one of the least regulated in the country. Almost two-thirds of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities. This lack of transparency has not translated into stellar academic results: student standardized-test scores at charter schools, the paper found, were no more than comparable with those at traditional public schools. And, despite the rhetoric of “choice,” lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system. Even Tom Watkins, the state’s former education superintendent, who favors charter schools, told the newspaper, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’

“After DeVos’s nomination, the editorial-page editor of the Free Press, Stephen Henderson—whose own children attend a high-performing charter school—wrote a searing indictment of Detroit’s experiment. ‘This deeply dysfunctional education landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident,’ he wrote. ‘It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.’ DeVos was at the center of that lobby; her lodestar, Henderson wrote, ‘has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it is not operated by government.’ …

“Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment. If, in recent years, a principal focus of federal educational policy has been upon academic standards in public education—how to measure success, and what to do with the results—DeVos’s nomination suggests that in a Trump Administration the more fundamental premises that underlie our institutions of public education will be brought into question. In one interview, recently highlighted by Diane Ravitch on her blog, DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination, or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preëmptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

Betsy DeVos’s advocacy for public taxpayer money to flow via vouchers to religious schools poses a threat to the separation of church and state that has been embedded in our Constitution and is espoused by most religious institutions themselves. (from Politico: “Trump’s education pick says reform can ‘advance God’s Kingdom’” by Benjamin Wermund, 12/02/16  See this article

“The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department [Betsy DeVos] once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to ‘advance God’s Kingdom.’

“Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.

“Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of ‘The Gathering,’ an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.

“In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

“School choice, they say, leads to ‘greater Kingdom gain.’ The two also lament that public schools have ‘displaced’ the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend.”

See also)

For these reasons, I urge you to question Ms. DeVos in her upcoming Hearing very specifically about her beliefs and priorities for the nation’s public schools if she should be confirmed as Secretary of Education. If she cannot agree to the following statements, I urge you to send a clear message that her agenda will not be tolerated, and to urge your colleagues to defeat her appointment. Thank you

Do you agree:

  • that America is a pluralistic society that honors and respects the diversity of its communities?
  • that the American public education system is an essential public good that is financed by public dollars and accountable to the local communities in which the schools exist, and which functions best with transparency and public input?
  • that public money should not be transferred to for-profit entities?
  • that public money should not be transferred to religious schools, which would violate the principle of the separation of church and state?
  • that the function of public schools is to nurture the talents and interests of each individual student, empowering them to become knowledgeable, discerning, and active participants in a diverse society, rather than workers in a global economy?
  • that well-educated, career teachers have a responsibility to nurture the curiosity of their students, and to value the heritage of their students while opening them to the full reality of America’s historical place in the world?

 

Sincerely,

Ms. Sheila Resseger, M.A.

Retired teacher, RI School for the Deaf

 

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