June 27, 2019 | 84° F

REYES: DeVos not qualified to represent all students

Opinions Column: And (Economic) Justice For All

Time and time again, elected officials and the media decry “failing urban schools” and the handicap they give poor children, particularly black and Hispanic children, entering adulthood. This rhetoric was pervasive during President Donald J. Trump’s campaign, especially when he concluded the final 2016 presidential debate by saying, “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs.” Trump’s vision of the “inner city” is at least 30 years past its prime,” and it undermines efforts to ameliorate the challenges people in urban centers are actually facing such as gentrification, segregation, the escalating cost of housing, environmental and public health, policing, safe and accessible transportation and more.

Given the complex problems urban students face, why do we continue to look solely at in-school factors like teachers, testing and “accountability,” when the evidence points to poverty and other external factors as the root causes of low academic performance? The reality is that public education is threatened by proponents of privatization willing to make a buck at the expense of students. This is exemplified in Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos.

DeVos, who is married to Amway multi-billionaire Richard DeVos Jr., is a tactful Republican donor, using her family’s tremendous wealth to support anti-marriage equality efforts, private school vouchers and “school choice” (i.e. charter schools). In her home state of Michigan, DeVos, a former Michigan GOP chairwoman, pushed for a failed constitutional amendment requiring the state to use public funds to pay for student tuition at private, religious schools through vouchers. However, DeVos used her immense political and financial capital to propel the rapid expansion of minimally-regulated, for-profit charter schools and online schools in Michigan. While these methods are highly controversial and debated, it is her knowledge — or lack thereof — of the role of public education and the federal Department of Education that is arguably the most alarming.

After her confirmation last month, she opened herself to new criticism stemming from her lack of understanding of even the most basic of education policy tenets. DeVos was unaware that the department she would be charged with has to enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a federal statute that ensures schools support services for children with disabilities, saying that she would “leave that to the states.” She also did not understand the difference between growth, which measures how much students learned over a period, and proficiency, which measures how many students attained a targeted level.

Most comically, she defended local decision-making on the matter of guns in schools, using a Wyoming school’s proximity to a grizzly bear habitat as a reason to do so. DeVos’s disregard of underprivileged students and federal regulation has galvanized people on all sides of the political spectrum — early last week, two senators, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), pledged their opposition against her — just one more “no” vote and DeVos’s confirmation would have been defeated, but Vice President Mike Pence issued an unprecented vote to break the tie she faced in the Cabinet. Even billionaire philanthropist and charter school advocate Eli Broad wrote a letter to members of the Senate imploring them to reject DeVos.

We need to consider the issues confronting public education today before moving forward. Far too many children — nearly 25 percent — live in poverty, many of whom do not have adequate access to nutritious food, medical care and safe housing. Black and Hispanic students, and English Language Learners (ELLs) are particularly targeted due to their increased likelihood to live in communities segregated by race and classwhich exacerbates the achievement gap. Most of these children are taught in our under-resourced public schools. This is largely due to school zoning and finance policies that primarily fund schools through local property taxes, perpetuating huge inequities in education — from the quality of school infrastructure to teacher's pay.

To address the perplexing issues facing our nation’s schools, we need a true champion of equal opportunity and equitable outcomes as the secretary of education. Betsy DeVos, with her history of advocating for her pocket and lack of public education experience, is not that person. It is past due for government officials to focus on the developmental needs of children and how public education has a role to play in leveling the playing field for disadvantaged children. After DeVos’s confirmation on Tuesday, our communities have their work cut out for them to ensure all students are protected equally under the law. The fight for a thorough and efficient education for all continues.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Thalya Reyes

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