Dear Ms. DeVos,
In December, I wrote you a letter as an introduction to those of us who teach in America’s public schools. In it I shared that we were a little freaked out about your nomination. You’ve never worked in a school, your children never attended a public school, and you didn’t seem to have a lot of positive things to say about the hard-working people who dedicate themselves to the 50 million young people who attend public schools.
You’ve now been the Secretary of Education for a few months and I have to say, we’ve moved from being freaked out to understanding that you are who we thought you were. President Trump began his presidency, and your tenure as Secretary of Education, by saying that American schools were depriving students of knowledge and describing them as “American carnage”. It lacked the poetry of “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” but we got the point. The dark vision that you and the president paint of our public schools (which you neither of you have really spent any time in) surely has an impact on your plans for the Department of Education.
Your first budget for the Department of Education is out and it’s a doozy. You eliminate $1.2 billion from after-school programs that serve 1.6 million children, you cut $27 million in arts education, $12 million for Special Olympics programs, and eliminate a program that provides loan forgiveness for teachers who offer to teach in underserved rural communities. In his inaugural address, President Trump said that American schools were “flush with cash.” My wife, who often has to teach music lessons in hallways and closets might disagree, but I digress. Your budget seems to try to surmise that schools are wasting money by providing safe places to go after school, giving young people the opportunity to create art, and supporting special education students. That’s disappointing in and of itself, but what is really appalling is that you are going to take the money from these programs that directly serve students and you are going to use it to expand corporate (profit making) charter schools and voucher programs.
Educator Carol Burris has studied the impact of diverting tax payer dollars to charter schools and voucher programs all over the country and has come up with the following three conclusions:
1) Privatized school choice will inevitably reduce funding to your local neighborhood public schools.
2) Direct and disguised vouchers to private schools and other public school alternatives start small and then expand, increasing the burden on taxpayers.
3) Additional administrative costs coupled with a lack of transparency waste taxpayer dollars and open the door to excessive legal and fraudulent personal gain.
I guess my question about your leadership of the Department of Education is this, who are you serving? Your proposed budget would suggest that your interest is in diverting dollars away from programs that directly impact young people and putting those dollars into the pockets of those who would like to make a profit in the business of educating our young people. The reality is that the vouchers that you champion will allow wealthy Americans to simply pocket money that they can afford to spend to send their children to the private (often religious) schools of their choice as taxpayers make up the difference. The reality is that charter schools aren’t going to use taxpayer dollars to build schools in rural communities, but taxpayers in those rural communities will be subsidizing charter schools in suburban communities, as well as the salaries of those who run large corporate school operations. In no universe does your budget make public schools better for the students who need them the most.
The thing is, you are doing exactly what you said you would do. Your disregard for public schools is what we knew we were getting. As the public schools of our country struggle to adapt to your agenda, as the pool of teachers willing to work in this new era continues to diminish, and as you do all you can to line the pockets of those who wish to exploit your agenda, it is those who voted for your nomination that teachers are really angry with. My own senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, voted to confirm you, knowing that the rural schools of Iowa would be hurt as much as anyone by your agenda.
The educators of my home state of Iowa have seen several years of budgets that are forcing our schools into austerity, we have lost our right to bargain collectively by a vindictive state legislature, and now we are watching as you enact a budget that will take dollars from important programs that serve students in order to build an industrial education complex that cares more about profit than student achievement. It only takes a brief look at your budget to see who benefits from your leadership in the Department of Education and to discover that you are who we thought you were.
American teachers will continue to look out for EVERY young person who comes in our door; the young Bosnian child who translates for her parents, the homeless teen who studies in a car with just a street light to illuminate his books, the student who stays in school because of a great music, art, or industrial technology program, and the special education student who loves to interact with their peers for part of their day. We are disappointed, but not surprised in what we are seeing. We hope that you will continue to meet more of us and in that process, begin to understand that our schools aren’t carnage, but are sanctuaries of hope for the children who are our future.
Patrick J. Kearney