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Education in the Hands of the Public

C. Audrey Harper, Writer

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The appointment of the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, occurred on February 7th after much controversy. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have criticized DeVos, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and billionaire philanthropist, for her lack of knowledge and experience in the education sector, but what do people in the public school system think?

Whitney Sutherland, a former teacher at Rolling Hills Elementary, experienced first hand the effects of underfunded school systems and teaching children living below the poverty line. “Instead of having a supply closet full of supplies, teachers have to buy their supplies themselves in order for their kids to be successful. In more well-funded areas there’s a surplus [of school supplies] and you get to have a spending stipend where you can pick out extra things and then you can go the extra mile and have paints and play dough and make rooms fun. My school library, all my books were brought from home or [bought at] the thrift store.”

DeVos has been the subject of viral posts such as a tweet by Dan Sheehan that stated, “Very important to get your DeVos jokes in while people can still read.” While largely hyperbolic, many students are taking appreciation for the resources they currently have.

“Having something like the College and Career Center be gone would be a huge detriment. We found out about so many scholarships and I would not have been able to do NSLI-Y because I wouldn’t have heard of it, and that was thanks to Ms. Champion [the college and career center counselor],” said junior Meenu Bhooshanan, a recipient of a scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y).

What DeVos has proposed to combat under-performing schools is shifting funding from public schools to charter schools and loosening charter school oversight.

“The idea of charter schools is a positive one. It can do a lot of great things, but what is actually happening there is less accountability held for charter schools than there is for the [regular] public schools,” Sutherland explained. “It takes money away from a school that is already struggling, and it basically builds up the gap between the have and the have-nots.”

However, not everyone is against DeVos. 50 Senators voted in favor of her nomination and numerous organizations, such as the EdChoice foundation, have supported DeVos publicly.

Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, wrote in an editorial for The New York Post, “She has been a strong supporter of parent choice as the most effective way to improve opportunities for children trapped in decades-old failing schools. Giving parents the power to decide where to send their kids, whether parochial, charter or district, has been the major driver of true education reform in this country.”

Despite multiple teacher unions opposing charter schools, 43% of teachers support the expansion of charter schools for children in low-performing public schools.

Along with her support of charter schools, much of her widespread dislike results from her lack of experience. DeVos and her four children have never attended public school, which has been a vocal argument against her confirmation, particularly by Senator Elizabeth Warren who wrote a 16-page letter addressed to DeVos.

Sutherland stated, “All of us [teachers] in public schools have to jump through a lot of hoops to become ‘highly qualified,’ so I would like anyone making decisions about the education process in our country to also have to jump through that hoop and be highly qualified.”

While politicians scramble to either defend or rebuke DeVos, Belinda Martin, a Bob Jones science teacher and former teacher at Lanett High School in Lanett Alabama, said, “There are a lot of issues in public education, but the focus needs to be on the kids – what is best for them and what’s going to work best for them.”

“It [public education] is the way we can reach the American dream,” Sutherland explained. At the age of 11, Sutherland’s father, who grew up in England, was required to take a test that would determine if he was to go to university or immediately enter the workforce. 

“He took classes like basket weaving and carpentry while his sister was in classes reading philosophy. He would go and read her books.” Once Sutherland’s father moved to the United States, he went on to get his high school education and subsequently, his bachelor’s and master’s degree as well.

“I don’t like schools that pigeon-hole kids that opportunity that we have in the United States, where if you work hard and if you do your best, you will be able to succeed. I know they are a lot of stumbling blocks, but public education is that equalizer. It gives people a step up, a way to make things better for families and without that positive experience, without that right, I don’t think we can have the other freedoms we enjoy. If public education falls, if our system fails, we are going to lose our middle class. It’ll just be a working class and an upper class. I don’t think that’s what the American dream is.”

50.4 million Americans attend public school, and while DeVos is certainly not popular, the future of the publicly educated students is in her hands.

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Education in the Hands of the Public