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With DeVos, Our Public Schools May Be in Trouble
Damali Ramirez. Additional reporting by Melanie Mata
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Betsy DeVos is our country’s new Secretary of Education. This might not seem like something that matters to you and other New York City high school students, but it does. The federal Department of Education oversees our nation’s education system, and makes sure schools are following federal education laws. It also provides funding to local school districts as well as financial aid to college students.

I attend Midwood High School, a public high school in Brooklyn. I’ve heard teachers complain about the school not receiving enough funding and how budget cuts affect them. If a school isn’t receiving enough funding it might not be able to buy art supplies, textbooks, and laptops, just to name a few essentials.

My parents left Mexico because the education system there wasn’t made available to poor people. They both grew up in small towns with a lot of poverty; education wasn’t free. At the age of 8, my mother had to drop out of school because her family couldn’t afford to send her. At 14, my father dropped out for the same reason. After my parents got married they decided to move here so their kids, regardless of their income or race, could be assured a good education.

President Donald Trump and his Cabinet are mostly millionaires and billionaires, and Betsy DeVos is one of them. This would be OK if she used her wealth to help make public schools prosper, but that’s not what she’s done. Instead, in her home state of Michigan, she’s put her money into promoting charter schools, which use public money but are privately run, and “school choice,” which allows people to use public money to send their children to private schools, including religious schools. This will leave the poorest students with an even smaller piece of the education pie.

No Education Experience

It also concerns me that DeVos has no education experience. As U.S. Senator Bob Menendez said, “We should not entrust the future of our children to someone who has never participated in our public education system—either as a student, parent, administrator, or educator.” She has never attended a public school, nor have her children or grandchildren! Approximately 90% of American kids go to public school, so it doesn’t make sense to me that we now have a secretary of education who has no experience either personally or professionally with public schools.

DeVos would also be in charge of our government’s $1 trillion college loan program. College loan debt is a huge problem in this country; according to studentloanhero.com, there are 44.2 million Americans with student loan debt. Many graduates struggle to pay their debts, even many years after graduation. I don’t want that to be me.

DeVos has no experience working with federal financial aid programs or with higher education at all. She’s never even filled out a FAFSA form (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). During her nomination hearing, she said she had friends and students who were familiar with Pell Grants (federal grants—money you don’t have to pay back—for college). That is the extent of her experience. Really?

During her confirmation hearings she showed how uninformed she was about our education laws. It’s a federal law that schools that receive federal funding are required to meet IDEA requirements (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). However, when Senator Tim Kaine asked her about IDEA enforcement, she said, “I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.” This law is a federal law, and making sure that states enforce federal education laws is one of the primary responsibilities of the Department of Education. Plus, her answer also implies she hasn’t given much thought to whether kids with disabilities get the same quality of education as everyone else.

image by YC-Art Dept

Doesn’t Support Public Schools

I first learned about DeVos in my journalism class, when we were sharing news articles we’d read over the weekend. We talked about DeVos’s nomination, and my teacher brought up her history of supporting charter schools rather than traditional public schools. “A charter school is a school that receives government funding, but operates independently of the established public school system,” she said. That means that they are run by independent companies (some are non-profit but others are for-profit corporations) and aren’t accountable to voters, like public schools.

I know charter schools aren’t necessarily bad. Some charter schools are smaller and can provide more innovative curriculum and more attention from teachers. For example, one of my fellow YCteen writers, Melanie Mata, goes to Renaissance Charter School in Queens. There are only 50 students in her grade compared to 800 students in mine. They integrate art, music, and drama into history and English lessons which sounds like a fun, innovative way to learn.

But many charter schools are mediocre or worse, particularly the ones that DeVos has supported in her home state of Michigan. Since the state began to embrace and expand charter schools, its scores have fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average. Detroit is suffering the most because 79% of the state’s charter schools are located there. Last spring, a group DeVos founded helped block a state law that would have made it easier to close charter schools that are failing.

And even if some charter schools, like Renaissance, are good, there are only a small number of them compared to public schools. We shouldn’t have the head of our education system preferring and promoting them ahead of regular public schools.

Guns in Schools?

I’m also concerned that DeVos is apparently not opposed to guns in schools. During her confirmation hearings, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who represents Sandy Hook, the site of the 2012 school shooting of 20 6- and 7-year-olds, asked DeVos if she believes guns have any place in or around schools.

“I think that is best left to locales and states to decide. I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school he is taking about in Wyoming. I think there, I would imagine there is probably a gun in a school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said.

A 2016 report by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found allowing guns on college campuses is not only unlikely to reduce mass shootings but is likely to lead to more shootings. Based on DeVos’s overall lack of knowledge about education and schools, I wonder if the billionaire is even aware of this study.

Betsy DeVos and her family have contributed millions of dollars to privatize public education and send public money to private schools. Based on my parents’ childhood experiences in Mexico, I know what it’s like to be part of a school system that’s not equal for all. I believe we need a Secretary of Education whose priority is supporting the public schools that serve the vast majority of America’s students, like me.

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(NYC-2017-03-08)

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