Sunday, November 27, 2016

Heavens to Betsy (DeVos)!

My paternal grandmother, Eleanor Cunningham Walsh, disdained the use of coarse language of any type. Whenever one of her many grandchildren would do something particularly boneheaded, the most virulent epithet she could muster was, "Heavens to Betsy!" When president-elect, Donald Trump, announced his choice for Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, I must admit that "Heavens to Betsy" was not the first phrase that came to my mind, but on reflection I think it is very appropriate.

DeVos is the ultimate privatizer of education. Not satisfied with using quasi-public charter schools as a way to drain resources from actual public schools, DeVos goes Full Monty on vouchers. She wants to eliminate public education entirely by giving every child a government check to go find the private school or religious school of choice. It is, of course, "the civil rights issue of our time." I have cataloged the danger and false promises of vouchers in this post from a few years ago. It is important to note that the heavily education reform-minded Obama administration rejected vouchers as a solution because it drained public dollars from public schools that were already strapped for resources and because vouchers did not work.

The idiocy and danger of this appointment has been well documented by other bloggers. If you have not done so already, I suggest you read the posts of the always on target Peter Greene here and here and here, Jersey Jazzman's analysis of Devos' husband's charter school fiasco here, and Michigan State University professor, Mitchell Robinson's account from DeVos' home state here. G.F. Brandenburg has pointed out that all that DeVos money comes from Amway Products, the quasi-legal pyramid scheme of a corporation that sucks money from poor unsuspecting would be small business owners in order to enrich the very few at the top of the pyramid. The Badass Teachers Association has also compiled a reading list on DeVos you can find here. 

So, what do we do now? Where do those of us who care about public education turn after years of disastrous leadership in the Department of Education, with an appointment that promises to be even more disastrous?

I suggest we join together to resist. First we need to resist by direct action to try to block this nominee. The Network for Public Education has begun a letter writing campaign you can access here. Better yet, call your senators (who will vote on the nomination) and your representatives (who will advise the senators). Directions for calling can be found here. 

Secondly, we need to resist on the state level. The federal government can and has done plenty of damage to public schools in the last 20 years, but under the new ESSA rules and under the current funding structure for schools, the feds need complicity in the states to make bad stuff happen. So, support your local and state teacher unions and parent organizations that will fight against federal efforts to expand vouchers and charters. Elect pro-public education officials. Go to school board meetings and let your voices be heard.

Thirdly, we need to resist by challenging this false narrative of charter schools and vouchers being the "civil rights issue of our time." Here we can fight back with real documentation. A recent study by Mathematica, a respected research group that generally finds in favor of the privatizers, found, after an extensive study, that the quality of the teacher is not a factor in the different educational opportunities of children. Here is how Mathematica's Senior Researcher, Eric Isenberg, put it 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found only small differences in the effectiveness of teachers of high- and low-income students in our study districts. This suggests that the achievement gap arises from factors other than students's access to effective teachers.

My favorite part of this statement is "contrary to conventional wisdom." This is unintentionally funny. It should say "contrary to the conventional wisdom of corporate education reformers who have been clueless on this issue from the start." All the rest of us have always known that it is poverty, inequity, and segregation that are the main contributors to the achievement gap.

Two summaries of the research on vouchers I find helpful are provided by the NEA here and by Keystone Research Center here. The conclusion: vouchers drain money from public schools, fail to expand choice for most parents, fail to improve student achievement, fail to provide safeguards for how the money is spent, and end up costing the taxpayers more. Vouchers, in other words, are a scam of the proportions of Amway. No wonder DeVos is a fan.

So, dear teachers, we must resist. We must resist with our actions and we must resist with our voices. We must help the nation realize, in what promises to be a difficult time ahead, that the real "civil rights issue of our time" is inequity, and that until we get to work on that issue, no scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy with monies intended for school children is going to narrow the achievement gap. Let us all commit to calling that gap what it truly is, an opportunity gap, a gap that the billionaire Betsy DeVos cannot possibly see from the platform of privilege where she has been standing her entire life.

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