Betsy DeVos Will Build Fences When U.S. Education Needs Bridges

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his dissenting opinion in the 1974 Miliken v. Bradley decision that enabled suburban Detroit school districts to not take part in Detroit’s desegregation busing plans that “school district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races…” He could very well add fences to separate the classes as well as the county looks at the potential confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominee for the United States Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

There are significant fences today that separate opportunity by race and class that would likely be exacerbated if DeVos is permitted to create a separate system to benefit privatized interests. The nomination of DeVos to be the Education Secretary is in line with a march by Trump to privatize public goods and services at breakneck speed.

America’s students don’t need a fence builder who will create a separate education system for some. They need someone who will build bridges to an equitable education for all students. The new Secretary of Education should not be permitted to be a reverse Robin Hood, who steals valuable resources from public education to give to private interests. A continued redirection of resources out of the public schools that presently contain the overwhelming majority of the student population to other schools that don’t have the same kind of accountability measures is a trend that must be resisted against.

Moreover, DeVos seemingly does not understand even basic accountability, having been flustered during Senate questioning regarding her preference for growth vs. performance evaluation metrics. Even prominent charter school advocate Eli Broad called her “unprepared and unqualified for the position” and expressed “serious concerns about her support for unregulated charter schools and vouchers.”

President Trump presented alternative facts during his inauguration speech when he described the education system as one that is “flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” This claim is rebutted by an overwhelming number of cases where additional funding is clearly needed. For example, a new report stated that school buildings in Philadelphia need around $5 billion worth of repairs.

Trump would have been more accurate if he said that the U.S. prison system is flush with cash. Tragically, spending on the state and local correctional system has gone up twice as much as spending on K-12 education over the last three decades. Additionally, wide education funding gaps exist all over the country. The Washington Post reported that poorer school districts get less funding than richer districts in 23 states.

The trend of states starving out the funding for public education has also extended to higher education. The New York Times noted that “since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on higher education by 17 percent per student, while tuition has risen by 33 percent, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.”

We the people are the last line of defense against what could be irreparable damage to previous gains. The calvary in the form of a mandate for equity is not coming from the federal government. DeVos, who has no direct personal experience with the public education system, expressly offered no commitment to uphold the law to protect students with disabilities. An eroding of civil rights protections for vulnerable students threatens to bolster a systemic exclusion from opportunities for certain populations from opportunities.

The next Secretary of Education should be a bridge builder that can connect valuable resources to the public education system. There is still a need to utilize all available mechanisms to create opportunities all students with specific efforts made for those who come from historically marginalized groups. We need all mechanisms, all bridges of access and opportunity.

These bridges were built by those who risked everything, who were beaten and bloodied, who sacrificed their lives so that we could have a better way of life. We can’t afford to allow the building of more fences that deny an equitable education to all students.