Public Education in Peril?

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” –Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.


The upcoming inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America continues to be, to put it mildly, an interesting one. For those of us who have spent the majority of their careers within the field of education, this feeling of apprehension is not a new one. Each time a new president takes office we have seen new philosophies, new ideas, and, new policies. And, yes, each time we are forced to res-shuffle the deck to adjust to new ‘flavor’ of the day; one dictated by some politician who hasn’t spent a single minute inside of a classroom in decades. Here we go again.

In 2017, the new nominee for Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos. While Betsy is not a new-comer to the field she is, most definitely, the most controversial. After all, she is one of the most outspoken opponents of public education in recent history. DeVos labeled public education as “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end”. Really? I didn’t realize that education was a business. Apparently, I am mistaken in thinking that it is a public service designed specifically to retain an enlightened and vigilant population as well as one that can compete on a global level. Public education certainly has its share of issues but why not attempt to amend them.  Unfortunately, DeVos seems to only see education through the eyes of a profiteer.  A quick review of her bio reveals her incessant battle to destabilize the public system within the State of Michigan in favor of one operated through private means. She is unabashedly pro-voucher, pro-private school, and even, pro-charter school. In fact, she has played a large role in the development of the Detroit Charter School System with mixed results. Regardless of her past, it is certain that she will bring this agenda with her to the White House; a move that might spell trouble for the education system as a whole.

To be sure, I am not opposed to educational competition. In fact, having worked in both public and charter schools I believe it is necessary to provide choices for families looking for the best educational program possible for their children. The fact is both the public and private sectors of education have serious issues. Nevertheless, the nomination of DeVos represents the biggest threat to our democratic ideals of ensuring the production of a highly educated population across all sectors of society: urban or rural, rich or poor, white or non-white, male or female. Here is why: Rather than work within the parameters of both public and private education to improve both; I believe the new agenda will be largely pro-privatization and anti-public education. So, why is privatization such an issue?

The issue with privatization is a rather simple one: it only works for a small portion of the population. Generally, the only families that participate in private schooling are those families that can afford it. Most of us cannot. In truth, the only way that private schools manage to stay afloat is through large tuition rates that are out of the reach of the average citizen thereby further dividing the gap between the haves and have-nots. To be sure, education is not a commodity that can be bought or sold on the stock market. It is an investment in our children; a necessity of any properly functioning Republic. Certainly, the dividends of education are not seen until decades later if, or when, the student becomes the productive citizen. We simply do not have the means or resources to send all our children to private schools. Pouring public education dollars into private systems will only be a fraction of what is needed to ensure that all our children get the learning they deserve.

What about vouchers? For those unfamiliar with school vouchers it is a program that allows parents to choose which school they want to attend rather than their neighborhood school which might be undesirable for any number of reasons. This might work except for a few issues. First, the voucher program does not provide for transportation thereby eliminating the majority of families who might benefit from its induction. Both urban and rural populations continue to struggle with poverty and thus cannot afford to drive their children to a different school program on a daily basis. Many just do not have the money. Others are working families that do not have the time for daily transportation and still others remain loyal to their neighborhood school, choosing to work for positive change within the system. Secondly, vouchers do not apply to private schools due to limited space and high tuition rates. Finally, vouchers only apply if there is adequate space within the school that one would like to attend and, you guessed it, the schools with the best reputation are usually full. The bottom line is that vouchers do not work and while there may be some system to reform the voucher system to ensure accessibility it remains elusive.

The Charter School System? Having worked in a couple of charter schools, I do believe that there is some merit to role as an alternative choice for families. However, there are some serious issues with charters as well. They are controlled locally and thus are subject to less oversight and more mismanagement. Indeed, the charter school system has seen its share of failures and for the most part do not out-perform public schools. A quick google search will yield plenty of reading material. Charter schools are also federally funded but not to the same extent as public schools. While states may vary, the general rule of thumb is between sixty and seventy percent. Funding is not available for areas such as transportation, food, or materials. Again, unless the school funds these areas individually they are unavailable to the detriment of those families that need it most.  

Again, I am not opposed to having competing arrangements for our children as long as they are balanced and fair but for the sake of our democratic ideals it is imperative that we educate our masses to the best of our ability. We must have a populace that can critically think about the issues and hold those in power responsible for their actions. We must maintain an educated populace that understands the value of opinion, diversity, compromise and other emotional intelligences. We must have a citizenry that has the ability to dissect the rhetoric and investigate the truth behind political intent. We must have a system that ensures all are exposed to an education that values and teaches the above goals. I hope that Mrs. DeVos, given this hefty responsibility, understands this and can move us toward a solution that does. Regrettably, I fear that she does not. And no, Betsy, guns in schools are not the answer, despite the grizzlies.

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