Story by Lindsey Coleman, Staff writer
On Feb. 7, Betsy DeVos, billionaire and proponent of charter school and vouchers, was appointed as the Secretary of Education by a historic 50-51 tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
Teachers and dissenters nationwide have disagreed with her appointment, pointing out that without having a public school education herself or sending her children to public schools, she is unqualified to be the Secretary of Education.
According to CNN, on Feb. 10, DeVos was briefly blocked by protesters as she attempted to enter a public school in Washington. She was later able to enter and speak to people in the school.
“At this point she is the secretary of education. She needs to be able to see what’s going on, and teachers need to be able to communicate with her,” Laurie Edminster, English teacher at Murray High School, said. “So I don’t think blocking or impeding her from doing her job, or attempting to do her job, is going to be effective at all.”
Edminster said she has taught every grade from 7th to 12th in her 28 years of teaching. Seventeen of those years have been at Murray High. Before that, she taught in South Carolina and Texas, but she has always worked for public school systems.
“I was very disappointed that someone with no background in education, who has not attended a public school, whose children have not attended public school, was made the Secretary of Education to oversee public schools,” Edminster said. “I understand that there are flaws in our system that need to be reformed, because we’re human, and as long as humans are working with something, it’s going to be flawed. But I felt like it was a slap in the face that our voices were not heard, because every educator I know was adamant that someone with some experience in education be in that position.”
Kassity Sutherland, senior from Murray, Kentucky, graduate of a public school and future middle school educator starting in August, said DeVos’ confirmation was terrifying and worrisome for her.
“Words like committeewoman, philanthropist and businesswoman are frequently used to describe the positions that she has held in her lifetime, but none of these words matter in the realm of education,” Sutherland said. “According to the US Department of Education, 91 percent of pre-K through 12th grade students attend public school, a place Betsy DeVos is not familiar with, by any means.”
Sutherland said Devos is simply not qualified to make decisions on what schools must do to receive federal funding, and DeVos doesn’t know what those public school students need in order to thrive.
“To my fellow educators and future educators, may the odds be ever in our favor,” Sutherland said.
One controversial priority for DeVos is increasing private school choice, which according to National Public Radio (NPR) includes “publicly sponsored programs that give families money to spend on tuition at private schools.”
“One of the things that I think attracted others to her was school choice,” Edminster said. “My concern is that it will be the death of public schools in big cities.”
She said she’s not necessarily worried about schools in the immediate area, but she said schools in Memphis, Tennessee, and Nashville, Tennessee, might suffer greatly if school funds are taken out of the system, which Edminster said could be around $5,000 per child.
Erica Gray, Calloway County chemistry teacher, started teaching 14 years ago in West Palm Beach, Florida, at a high poverty Title I federally-funded school that supported school choice. She also taught at McCracken Country briefly.
“When you start diverting public school dollars into private things, it creates an even greater performance and income inequality gap that is already an issue in a lot of those cities, so that’s a real concern,” Gray said.
She said most students attend public schools, and in order for students to be globally competitive, it is in our best interest as a nation to build up those public schools.
“One of the things I love about this country is that we educate everyone,” Edminster said. “We don’t handpick who gets to go to whatever school, like many countries do. That’s what makes America so strong. Everyone is exposed to principles of education, and when we start messing around with that, we, our children, our grandchildren, are going to pay the price for it.”
Although Trump vowed to cut the common core standards for schools across the nation, Edminster said she understood why some were upset when the common core was implemented.
She said the element of teacher control was taken away with the advent of the common core, and there’s been a lot of pushback about the federal government controlling what educators teach kids.
“You’ve got to have some control, some checks and balances, to make sure that the money is being spent effectively and that there are standards that students and teachers have to meet,” Edminster said.
Gray said from her experience in West Palm Beach the school choice program isn’t as glamorous as some may think.
“I experienced firsthand how a choice program affect[s] the public school,” Gray said. “It absolutely takes the best students from a school and leaves a population that is very challenging to teach, and with the limited amount of resources they are given, it makes it even harder.”
She was the school choice coordinator when she lived in West Palm Beach, which meant she had to recruit students to go to her school, but since it was an International Baccalaureate school and dual language school they were able to market to a broad range of students and family incomes.
“If we make some public schools different than other public schools, and don’t give them equitable resources, then I think as a nation we’re continuing to create the economic divide that some kids and some families will never be able to get out of,” Gray said.
She said public education is the one level playing field offered to every student in the nation that will allow them the opportunity to combat poverty.
“If there’s something good that comes out of this, it’s that maybe we’ve got a more involved and educated electorate, but at what cost?,” Gray said.
A statement sent to The Murray State News from Kelsey Cooper, State Communications Director, on behalf of Senator Rand Paul’s office said DeVos is committed to the principles of improving education opportunities, and Sen. Paul supported her nomination.
According to the statement, “Sen. Paul believes every child in Kentucky and America deserves a chance to get a quality education. Increasing the choices parents and students have and getting Washington out of the way are the most important things the federal government can do to improve the education opportunities available to our children.”