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Dear Betsy DeVos

Cassie calls for active questioning on education reform

By Jon Cassie

After his surprise win in the 2016 election, Donald Trump nominated Betsey DeVos of Michigan to replace John King as Secretary of Education. DeVos’s voice has been a part of the landscape of education debate in the United States for more than twenty years. Her voice has long been aligned with those segments of American education that are hostile to the institutions of public education (the bureaucracies of state and federal education departments, public teachers’ unions, public schools themselves) and in favor of school choice. Betsey DeVos’s voice is not just one in a chorus of criticism of American public education, for many, she is the primary soloist. This is particularly true in Michigan, where the record of the charter schools she was instrumental in founding in Detroit have a decidedly mixed track record of success. On a roster of polarizing nominees, DeVos’ nomination is especially so.

Her public statements and work over these last decades aligns the [almost certainly] incoming Secretary of Education with the charter school movement and with the broader move to create a voucher system whereby parents would be able to use public funds in private educational contexts. Moreover, her work with an assortment of think tanks has raised questions about her dedication to the Common Core, or indeed whether she’s dedicated to it at all. Her public legacy as an advocate for her particular form of education reform leaves many scratching their heads wondering exactly what (other than vouchers and school choice) she actually stands for.

While one may debate the merits of school choice, vouchers or the Common Core, what can’t be argued is that the state of education in the United States is increasingly misaligned with what school aged children will actually need to be capable of achieving their goals and dreams in the 2020s, 2030s and beyond. Reflect on this. Students who will eventually comprise the graduating class of 2029 are even now enrolled in school. These students who will spend the first part of the year 2030 as freshmen in college are already in the care of America’s schools. These students will be in the labor force in the 2070s. If we’ve learned anything about the pace of change in the 2000s and the 2010s it is that rapid change is the order of the day and that the pace of that chance is increasing. Historians of the 2050s will look back to us, in this era, and will judge our courage in reforming education.

As an educator, I have spent all of my twenty-year career in independent schools. I have worked in these settings in Dallas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and now in Orange County, California. Some of the schools for whom I’ve worked have had a spiritual dimension to their mission. Other schools have had a secular mission. All were led by caring and thoughtful educators who put students ahead of abstract notions of reform, choice or ideology. As an educator who has spent his entire career in independent, non-public schools, Betsey DeVos’ track record leaves me with a number of questions. From where I sit, almost nothing that she has devoted her attentions and energies towards will actually bring about comprehensive change. Her perspectives are too narrow and focused on a sociocultural agenda that at its heart is only tangentially connected to education. Were I on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which will vet DeVos’s nomination, I would ask her the following questions:

1. We have entered an age where the truth and facts are considered expendable. Do you believe that schools have a role in teaching critical thinking? Moreover, do you believe that facts should form the basis of democratic discourse?

2. What is the purpose of education? What, to you, differentiates the educated person from the uneducated one?

3. Thomas Jefferson argued that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” To what extent do you believe it is the role of public schools to remedy this, and what do they need to better do this?

4. As an independent school educator, I am confused by your position on vouchers. These mechanisms by which public funds are diverted to private ends still represent public funds and would, therefore, be rejected by the vast majority of independent schools. In what specific ways will diverting public funds for private ends achieve the goal of improving the education for all Americans?

5. There is considerable confusion about your position regarding the Common Core. Do you believe that what students learn and how they experience education day-by-day should best be determined by their teachers or by officials in state capitals or Washington?

6. Charter schools which you have advocated and funded have a mixed record of enhancing achievement. How should educators and leadership in charter schools be evaluated and what is the mechanism by which these schools might be closed?

7. Charter schools which you have advocated and funded sometimes contribute to rising segregation and decreasing diversity in their cities and neighborhoods. What is the obligation of the state to maintain diversity in schools? Should charter schools that don’t reflect the ethnic and racial demography of their local community be sanctioned in some way?

8. Much has been made in the past decade about the Finland model of education, in which the locus of curriculum control is centered in the teachers within a particular school, who know their children best. To what extent do you support returning classroom control to the teacher?

9. Education funding across the country contributes to systematic inequity in the K-12 experience. Do you agree with this, and if so, what should be done to remedy it. If not, to what do you attribute the differences in student achievement?

10. Should high school end after three years?

11. What are the greatest challenges facing higher education in the next fifteen years, and what do you think the United States should do about them?

What questions would you put to Betsy DeVos if you were in the Senate?

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