The ramifications of the controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education in the Trump administration are rippling across the U.S. as educators try to figure out what’s next. We spoke to twenty teachers in public, private and charter schools across the country to learn more about their feelings and concerns.
What parts of the American education system do you feel need the most improvement?
Elisabeth Mency, public school: We are constantly underfunded by our government, forcing us do more with less; when government-mandated test scores drop, we are vilified. We are blamed for not being number one in the world for test scores, yet we aren’t given the resources we need to teach all students.
Bob McHeffey, public school: Most mandates that come down from on high are ineffective. They take too long to implement, there is no local buy-in and they disappear too fast. It’s like a pendulum swing. However, changes that are made with collaboration among shareholders, with solid educational research and with financial backing and time are effective in improving our schools.
Allison, private school: As a special-education teacher, I definitely feel that the services many public schools provide to both special-education and low-income students are in major need of improvement. These schools and students need more resources, more respect and a better understanding of diverse learning needs and styles.
Joe Gels, magnet school (specialized public school): Let’s please kill high-stakes testing that doesn’t measure anything except for a student’s ability to do well on a high-stakes test.
Laura, charter school: As an arts educator, it has been sad for me to see content that I consider to be sacred being eliminated from school programming to make room for test prep.
Corey, application-selective public school: The worse the funding is for local schools, the more extreme the measures taken to try and “catch students up.” Wealthier school districts, private schools and charter schools have more freedom to practice proven forms of effective education. Critical thinking, collaboration and creativity are all practiced in those schools at a much higher rate due to the fact that they tend to not worry so much about filling in the “achievement gap.” The one thing that the DeVos/Trump/Republican camp never wants to talk about is the fact that poverty plays a tremendous role in student performance and achievement.
This is not to say that students cannot rise above it, but is it really fair and equitable when your students’ baseline emotional level is “distressed?” When was the last time you were hangry? How hard was it to focus?
The C-level kids from my high school (a boarding school filled with spoiled, rich kids) all got into college. How much effort do you think they put in? How many C-level students from public schools in Newark, Trenton or the Bronx go to college?
JT Taylor, public school: Places like New England and the West Coast seem to be okay-to-high okay. The flyover states and the South aren’t so great. These are places that scream for state power when they really need some government regulation.
Alice, public school: The biggest facet that needs improvement is quality control amongst schools. Every student should be receiving an equal education, despite their background or area code. Adequate teacher training is a necessity that will lead to less burnout for young teachers.
Liz Martin, public school: Very little actual teaching or learning is going on with all of the issues we’re facing. We are doing our best to keep students IN CLASS so that they can learn, but there is legislation making it impossible to have consequences for non-compliant, disrespectful, even violent behavior, and it’s becoming like Lord of the Flies — the toughest kids run the school, and the teachers and other kids are scared.
Taylor Reinhart, charter school: The deeper you dive, the more nuance you see in the problems. I always put forth the federal vs. local problem to those who don’t know much about ed policy. We know that communities have unique needs, so a one-size-fits-all educational model from the federal government will fail to address tons of local concerns. If that model is made from a white reform perspective, students in traditional schools that are mostly segregated will not receive education and materials that meet their unique needs.
What is your opinion on Betsy Devos being appointed as secretary of education?
Jillian, public school: Betsy DeVos is part of the Amway pyramid scheme empire. Her family donated over $200 million to politicians, and she completely and utterly failed to answer questions with any sense of understanding or information. Her answer, to please Republicans, was to turn it back to the states. She did not know that IDEA was a federal law.
She will attempt to dismantle teachers’ unions. The states that have the strongest teachers’ unions have the highest-performing scores on national (NAEP) and international (PISA/TIMSS) assessments. Teachers’ unions do protect teachers’ rights, but more importantly, we safeguard CLASSROOMS…class size, having nurses, guidance counselors, time for teachers to plan effectively for quality instruction.
Elisabeth Mency, public school: If teachers must be highly qualified to get and keep our jobs, so should the secretary of education.
Bob McHeffey, public school: DeVos’ qualifications are laughable. Education policy should not be solely grounded in the political. It should be grounded in the practical, and with the well being of ALL students in mind, not just the students DeVos wants to serve.
Jack, private school: The appointment of Betsy DeVos is a nightmare for the public education system. She actively worked to drain money from Detroit public schools, stripped away accountability regulations for charters and unleashed on Detroit unregulated, unaccountable, for-profit charter schools that don’t actually perform any better than Detroit public schools. DeVos also has an interest in a student debt collections company. I fear that DeVos will use her position to enrich herself and people like her at the expense of students at the primary, secondary and university levels.
Laura, charter school: It sends a message that public education isn’t important enough to merit having a high-quality professional oversee and work towards improving the system.
Joe Gels, magnet school (specialized public): Betsy DeVos is a prime example of corporate greed trying to make education in its own image so it can be exploited. In particular, having those who have never even set foot in a public school (except to look down upon it) in a place of power.
Samantha, public school: DeVos believes teachers are overpaid. It’s an absolute joke. All of my friends make more than I do and I am shaping the minds of our future generation. Our doctors, our lawyers… our future president. I am also paying for my graduate degree, which is mandated to keep my license, out of pocket. Absolutely zero help from the state. This will all get worse under DeVos, who is afraid of bears roaming the halls of our public elementary schools.
Sonja, private school: Education is not a business, but many private schools and charter schools are run like businesses. How can public schools compete for educators when private and charter schools can hire teachers that are not licensed by the state, yet can be paid more?
JT Taylor, public school: Unions are on the chopping block. Then there will be more power shifted to states. Places like California and Massachusetts will probably be fine, but still struggle. Bumblefuck, Alabama — already struggling with state and federal funds/support — is going to be so fucking fucked when the government washes its hands of education and uses a tweet at 3 a.m. to imply good luck.
Taylor Reinhart, charter school: The bear fiasco hides what is scariest about her: Betsy DeVos will make rash decisions in a field that needs to be defined by patience, data and ethical ideals. Bad decisions will be made and my colleagues and I will soldier on.
One of DeVos’s more controversial platforms is “school choice,” which greatly affects how public schools are funded. What is your opinion on the concept of school choice, if any?
Elisabeth Mency, public school: Sure, some kids opt out, but what about those who still attend the school in question? We need to fully fund all schools and not just those in affluent settings.
Scott, public school: I get that parents might like the way it sounds, but instead of abandoning a school it should be fixed and focused on.
Bob McHeffey, public school: There are some schools that, given the freedom of a charter, would provide sound educational policies and programs for kids. But there are WAY too many that are poorly conceived and run. And the good ones will mostly likely only serve those who already have economic advantages.
Alice, public school: I absolutely agree with the idea of school choice. It is unfair that students are forced into inadequate schools based on their area code. Parents should have the choice on where to send their child. I know that some people have brought up the fact that this system will not work for underprivileged families. In fact, it does. I have worked in charter schools where families pay no out-of-pocket costs and students are extremely successful in these environments. When it comes to a voucher system, schools are receiving money per child. If each child is getting the same funding, students are equals in education, as they should be.
Jack, private school: If the local public schools are just as good as nearby schools that charge tuition, the parents who can afford to pay tuition will still send their kids to those schools and the parents who can’t afford it will still be satisfied with free, well-performing public schools.
Allison, private school: With school choice, the students who need the most help are still stuck in the public schools, which are also then working with fewer resources than before since they have fewer students (and therefore get less money), or are hemorrhaging even more money paying for vouchers. The separation of church and state is one issue. Another is that many parochial and private schools, unless they are specifically schools for students with special needs, cannot support students with diverse learning needs either, and also counsel out students who need additional support that the school can’t offer.
Joe Gels, magnet school (specialized public): The people who would be affected by school choice don’t actually want it!
Marissa, public school: Charters blur the lines of church and state. Now, if parents choose to send their children to a religious school, that is absolutely their choice. Charters, however, are supposed to be public institutions as they take public funding. It’s a roundabout way for public funds to go to religious schooling.
Samantha, public school: Charter schools are a scam. They don’t have a SPED department, teachers do not need a license to teach in them and they are allowed to turn away children with behavioral disorders. They basically kick them out, but keep the money the state gave them for teaching the student.
Arielle, public school: It becomes a survival of the fittest for education. Who gets the vouchers first? Who gets priority in choosing schools? What happens to those who are unable to receive a voucher and must instead continue to go to the school in their community?
Corey, application-selective public school: What happens when the “good” schools that everybody wants to attend fill up? Class sizes increase, watering down quality. It’ll place an even larger burden on teachers — dampening their ability to be creative and effective. Zone schools will no longer be required take all students, meaning increased competition that will favor students with greater resources to prepare them for entrance. The leftover students will be consigned to low-performing schools.
DeVos wants vouchers to apply to parochial schools, which is a direct affront to the establishment clause of the constitution. Public funding has no place being spent on religion, plain and simple.
Taylor Reinhart, charter school: I teach in one of these charter schools and my mom is a lifelong public school teacher. We have managed to keep it from being contentious.
Part of it is how strictly schools are held to the law: Ohio and Louisiana are famous for doling out school vouchers like Band-Aids, and unsurprisingly have been wrapped in scandals of malpractice. It is much harder to get a charter off the ground in MA or NY, or even Texas. I do not believe public schools are failing us and that charters are the answer. I believe that there are innovative practices charters are empowered to test via more freedom in their curriculum and smaller building sizes, and they may inform public school practice in positive ways.
Charters have been assaulted lately by bastions of right-wing thought that have noticed the possibility of transforming American schools into corporate enterprises like the prison system. Charters, popular as they are with bi-partisan support pre-Trump, can be co-opted. I believe DeVos may have her eyes on eliminating secular education because of her religious beliefs, but that corporate element is there, too. My opinion on school choice: There is nothing wrong with empowering parents to seek education tailored to the interests and circumstances of their kid. We will continue to have more choices, hopefully. But, like democracy, that choice can be bought and paid for if we are not terribly, terribly diligent.
Collage by Krista Anna Lewis. Photos via Getty Images.