It’s not unusual for teachers to be disappointed in federal education policy. It’s almost routine by this point. When I was in school, my teachers had a laundry list of complaints for Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan. I think there’s always going to be a conflict between what teachers think is best and what federal policy mandates. Betsy DeVos is a unique challenge, though. After coming as close as possible to having her confirmation rejected, public school teachers are understandably confused about how to approach her management of the Department of Education. She isn’t as knowledgeable about education as most of her recent predecessors, and it’s hard to tell exactly what sort of role she’ll play in policymaking. One doesn’t get the sense that Donald Trump is going to make education reform a priority in the same way that George W. Bush and Barack Obama both attempted to.
But it’s not productive to block her from public schools, as several protesters did recently as DeVos tried to enter a school in Washington, D.C.
Let me be clear: I don’t think Betsy DeVos understands very much about public schools at all. I don’t think she understands exactly how valuable a public education is if you belong to a family that lives paycheck to paycheck and can’t dream of affording private school. I don’t think she understands how so many parents want the best for their children, but they feel let down by schools and see their children put at a disadvantage. I don’t think she understands what it’s like to be a public school teacher, where you’re held to strict standards of accountability in a way that teachers at religious schools aren’t.
She is, however, our Secretary of Education, presumably for the next few years. She alone doesn’t have to power to privatize schools, or implement a widespread voucher program, our cut the salaries of public school teachers. If all she’s ever known is what life is like for the 10 percent of people who go to public school, why not let her learn how the other 90 percent lives?
Her job is to make our lives better. Will she necessarily do that if she has unfettered access to public schools? I’m not sure. But I do know that she won’t improve anything for students or educators if she’s kept in the dark about what we need from her.
Yes, there are lots of reasons to be wary of Betsy DeVos, and I understand the frustration of those who fear that public schools are in danger– I’ve been in public schools my entire life, including my university education. A public school won’t burst into flames just because she walks into it, though. The best thing that students and educators can do in this situation is to make the best of it. Let’s see if she’ll better understand the importance of her job once she knows what public schools are like. If we block her from doing her job before she has a chance to learn it, we’re only hurting ourselves.