Education Reform and My Thoughts on the Proposed New Secretary of Education

I’ve already stated on this blog that I am not a Trump supporter. But now that he’s president-elect, I don’t really have any choice but to accept the fact that we will likely spend the next four years under a Trump presidency. Some people are taking the “let’s wait and see what he does” approach, and I’d really like to be able to do that, but I remain increasingly troubled as I hear about his Cabinet picks. Bannon, with his alleged ties to white supremacists, terrifies me. Sessions, with his history of not supporting civil rights, concerns me—and that concern escalated when I heard his comment that the inclusion of students with significant disabilities in schools is “the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout American today.” (Really? Not underfunding and budget cuts? Not being required to “teach to the test” and base classroom evaluation largely on standardized test scores? I have a feeling some teachers I know would beg to differ.)

But one Cabinet pick concerns me even more, because she could potentially directly impact my son’s future: Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education.

Have you heard of Betsy DeVos? Maybe not. I certainly hadn’t, up until a few days ago. Turns out she’s a billionaire “education activist” from Michigan. She has bachelor’s degrees in business administration and political science. She’s chairman of a company that invests in technology, manufacturing, and clean energy. She’s been an active participant in the Michigan Republican Party, in several roles. In fact, at one point she resigned as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party because the governor didn’t support her school-voucher proposal.

And right there, in that preceding paragraph, you’ve got the basis of my concerns. She’s up for Secretary of Education, and yet she has never been a teacher or an educator of any kind. Nor has she been in education administration. Rather, she’s a businesswoman and politician who has taken an interest in education reform, for whatever reason. Which I suppose is better than being a businesswoman and politician who hasn’t taken an interest in education…but still, I would like our Secretary of Education to be someone who has actually been on the inside of the public school system. Betsy DeVos hasn’t even attended public school—she was educated at private schools, and reportedly her children have been as well.

So I’m not sure why, when public school in no way touches her family, that DeVos has taken a keen interest in reforming the system. But it concerns me because of the approach she has taken in Michigan and potentially could take at the federal level.

In Michigan, DeVos is well known in education circles for having fought strongly against charter school regulation and strongly for a voucher-based school system. What does this mean? Basically, that DeVos wants a system where schools are privatized, for-profit entities, rather than public entities. In a true voucher system, parents would be given vouchers for their children to attend the schools of the parents’ choosing, rather than attending the public schools in their neighborhood.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound bad, right? You get a voucher, and you get to pick your child’s school! But if you look below the surface, there are some very big potential problems:

  • The quality of for-profit education has traditionally been very hit or miss. Heald Business College is a good example. It was shut down in 2015 after the Department of Education found that it misrepresented the job-placement rates for students coming out of the program. These types of for-profit schools have long been known for providing an education that is better than no post-secondary education at all—but not equivalent to the education one gets from a four-year university. (Need I even mention Trump University?!)

For-profit charter schools are similar in that there are certainly good ones out there, but there are also ones providing a substandard education. Just because a charter school exists doesn’t mean it’s a good charter school.Certainly, the same is true with public education—some public schools are far better than others. We live in a huge district (one of the largest in the state), and there is known to be a very big divide between the best schools and the worst schools in the district. However, there are inter-district transfers available for students in the low-performing schools, so at least parents do have some options if they’re able to transport their children to a school outside their neighborhood.

  • Costs for private schools are not equal across different areas. This could present a challenge for parents with low incomes. One number I heard thrown around was that a voucher would be $12,000 a year. Guess what? Where I live, private school costs closer to $20,000 a year. I don’t have an extra $8,000 per child per year to make up the difference. And Chris and I are decidedly a middle-class family. I can only imagine what parents in lower income brackets would face! Would we have to drive our children quite a distance to find a school that came in under the arbitrary voucher amount? Or would we have to put our kids in a substandard private school that charged less than the better schools? I would hope that voucher amounts would reflect true tuition amounts in a given area, but I’m not certain that’s part of the plan.
  • Here’s one that’s even more troubling to me: Private, for-profit schools don’t have to accept students. Some have very stringent admission guidelines, while others are more subtle about it, but the bottom line is the same: They can pick and choose which students they accept. There has been no mention of that changing with a voucher-based education system. So parents might be given a voucher, but that doesn’t mean it’s a ticket for their child to get into a good school.

As the parent of a child with a significant disability, this concerns me. Even trying to find Sam a preschool was a challenge for a number of reasons, but one of them was his disability. One private preschool flat-out told me, “I’m sorry, but we don’t accept students with disabilities. There are segregated special-education classes he can go to.” They had never even met my son. They denied him solely on the basis of having a disability. I fear that in a voucher-based system, I would face the same challenge of finding a school willing to accept him.

  • This leads me into what’s right about our public school system. I’ll be the first person to admit that the public school system isn’t flawless. There are definitely ways in which I think it should be improved. But here’s one area where I do believe it is strong: Federal law protects the most vulnerable students in our public education system. I could cite countless studies showing that inclusion offers the best possible future outcome for a great many students with disabilities (children with Down syndrome being one such group), but I won’t because that’s not the point of this post. But suffice it to say that inclusion has been proven time and again to show the most positive outcomes for both students with disabilities and their typically developing peers in their classroom. It’s not cheap, and it requires support, which is largely why school districts fight against it. But it provides the best possible outcomes for many students with disabilities.

And guess what? Federal law protects those students and their right to an inclusive education! I may have to fight for Sam to be included in a general-education classroom, but federal law is on my side. ADA, IDEA, ESSA, FAPE, LRE—this bunch of acronyms means little or nothing if you’re not a parent of a child with a disability, but they mean everything if you’re a parent fighting to get your child his or her rightful place in a classroom. And thanks to these acronyms, I may have to fight to get Sam included, but I can do it—as can most parents of children with disabilities, if they have the time and resources to pursue it.

But that’s only the case in the public school system. Private schools aren’t required to uphold these pieces of legislation. Private and for-profit schools can pick and choose which students they want, and they are allowed to exclude students on the basis of disability. So what happens to a student like my Sam if we go to a voucher-based, privatized, for-profit education system? Suddenly, his rights are gone. Suddenly, he can be excluded from every school.

  • There’s a possibility that public schools would be left intact even as we move to a voucher-based system. But if that happens, guess what? The funding diverts from public schools to the voucher program, and public schools are left with even less funding than they have now. They could basically become underfunded wastelands full of only students with disabilities and students from very low-income families. Where’s the diversity there? Aside from all of the other problems that come with underfunding, that could turn right back into a segregated education environment—something we have spent decades working against.
  • And last but not least, support services for students with special needs. Right now, if you have a child with a disability, when that child reaches a certain age, his therapy services are provided by the public schools. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy—occasionally other supports as well, but those are the big three. But private schools don’t have to provide those services—and for the most part, they don’t. So if we move to a voucher-based, for-profit education model, what happens to the support services students with disabilities receive? Honestly, it depends on the family. Some medical insurances will cover some services—but some won’t. In theory, the Regional Centers are supposed to cover what insurance and the school district won’t, but Regional Centers are woefully underfunded, and getting services through them can be nearly impossible. Parents could pay out of pocket, but the cost is immense. Do you know how much it would cost for us to pay out of pocket for Sam to receive one hour each of OT, PT, and ST a week? It would be $1,500 month, minimum. If you’re a wealthy family, maybe that’s okay. But for your average middle-class family like us? Not even a possibility. Sam would have to go without therapy if we couldn’t get it any other way.

So I think you can see why I have concerns about Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos. She has worked tirelessly to dismantle Michigan’s public education system, and I fear she will do the same on a federal level. The president of the American Federation of Teachers stated that “in nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.” I hope that’s hyperbole; I really do. But I’m frightened. The fact that DeVos has no actual education experience of her own and has so tirelessly fought to revamp the education system makes me think that she has simply chosen this platform in order to make a name for herself, without truly thinking through the implications. Has she stopped to think about what this will mean for vulnerable student populations, including those with disabilities? I’m have serious doubts.

What I do know is that I’ll be writing to our senators and making them aware of my concerns. And I am certainly not alone in them. Many parents of children with disabilities have expressed similar fears, as have disability-rights and educational rights organizations. The Michigan Democratic Party calls DeVos a “dangerous and ill-advised pick.” The ACLU in Michigan says DeVos has taken “no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools” as she has worked to dismantle Michigan’s public school system. The National Education Association says DeVos has “consistently pushed a corporate agenda…to impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.” And the concerns go on and on.

As I’ve said, our public education system isn’t perfect. But I think that on the whole, it is a workable system. Vulnerable students are guaranteed an education, while parents who don’t care for the public system can choose private education or can choose to homeschool. There’s something for everyone, even if the “something” isn’t always perfect. It seems to me a solid base to work on, as opposed to a voucher-based system that poses a real threat to vulnerable student populations.

 

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