The selection of Betsy DeVos by President-elect Donald Trump as his education secretary nominee has been attacked by public school advocates who see her longtime support for school “choice” and private Christian education as evidence that she does not support America’s public education system. In this post, that sentiment is explained by an educator who has written an open letter to DeVos.
He is Patrick Kearney, fspent 25 years as a band director in private and public schools of Iowa, and is a past-president of the Iowa Bandmasters Association and past co-chair of the Iowa Jazz Championships. He was also a founding board member of the Jazz Educators of Iowa. His wife teaches in the Des Moines Public Schools and his son is studying education at Drake University.
Here’s the letter, which first appeared on Huffington Post. Kearney gave me permission to republish it.
Dear Ms. DeVos,
I don’t think we’ve really met yet; we are America’s public school teachers. There are about 3.1 million of us. We teach in large urban areas, we teach in the suburbs, we teach in small rural communities, and we teach in some really remote parts of our country. The most important thing to recognize is that we teach every kid who shows up. We don’t pick and choose the types of kids that we will teach, we teach ALL of them.
Because we haven’t really had much interaction, we thought it might be nice to share a little bit about the public schools we teach in. First of all, we are very proud of our schools. Public schools today have the highest graduation rate in American history. The Gallup Poll says that the rate of parents who are satisfied with their public school is the highest in American history. We are also very proud that our public schools offer more services to students with low socioeconomic backgrounds and special education needs than ever before. Not to be redundant, but we are proud that we serve ALL of the students in our communities.
Our communities are very important to us. We are taxpayers in our local communities and many of us have children of our own who attend the public schools that we teach in. We care deeply that our schools are safe and that they are providing a rigorous and relevant curriculum to EVERY student who walks in the door. We recognize that each of our communities have different needs and sometimes get frustrated with a “one size fits all” mentality.
We also know that our public schools face real challenges. Twenty-two percent of U.S. public school students live in poverty, 50 percent more than the next highest industrialized nation. English is a second language to almost 10 percent of the students we serve. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen more than 10 percent in the last 10 years. We are challenged to keep up with increasing state and federal mandates regarding standardized testing.
America’s public schools are here to serve EVERY kid. As the teachers who keep those schools ticking, all that we ask is that you listen to us.
So, I suppose we also need to address the elephant in the room. We are a little freaked out by your nomination to be secretary of education. You aren’t an educator. You haven’t ever attended or sent your children to a public school, yet you seem to have some pretty strong opinions about them. You don’t seem to have been involved in the study of curriculum or school standards. What you have done is lobby (and spend millions of dollars of your own money in advocacy) for taxpayer dollars to go to unregulated for-profit charter schools. As teachers we like to look at data. Interestingly, the data from Michigan (where you have been able to use your wealth to influence a lot of education policy) would suggest that the charter schools you lobby for aren’t really achieving any better than their public counterparts.
If you are confirmed by the Senate to become secretary of education (and we hope it doesn’t hurt your feelings that many of us will work to oppose your nomination), we hope that you will work to get to know us. It seems that anecdotes of ineffective teachers who get to hold on to jobs without accountability are popular these days. Those anecdotes really don’t match up with what we see in our schools. No one is going into education to get wealthy. We go into teaching because we care about young people. We go into teaching because a teacher in our lives inspired us. When you get to know us we think you will find that we desperately continue to work to improve our schools. If you were to meet us and find that you don’t think much of the work we are doing, we will be curious if you can find an army of better qualified people who want to do this work for less money, fewer benefits, and with more regulation.
The education of America’s young people is important. The challenges in front of us are real. Giving families “choice” in their education options is a worthy conversation, but let us not presume that using tax dollars to support those interested in turning a profit to open unregulated schools with no record of success will improve education in our country. How we use our resources is a reflection of what we value. The most unpopular thing a teacher can say is that there is a cost to providing the best possible education to our students, and yet like most things, you often get what you pay for. Many for-profit charter schools have gone out of business because they quickly discovered that the public schools they replaced weren’t the inefficient operations they assumed them to be.
America’s public schools are here to serve EVERY kid. As the teachers who keep those schools ticking, all that we ask is that you listen to us. You are new to all of this and we are here to help. Once we introduce you to the young Bosnian kid who translates letters home to his parents; the kid living out of the family car who does homework with only a street light to illuminate his textbook; the kids who wants to be sure their school offers great music courses, a world language program, and some advanced courses; and the special education students who love spending part of their day with their peers, we think that you will fall in love with our public schools.
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(Clarification: An earlier version said DeVos had promoted Catholic education. She supports various Christian schools.)