Dear Secretary DeVos,
I wrote you a letter in December to introduce you to the public school teachers of America. In my original letter I thought it was important for you to get to know the 3.1 million of us who teach in America’s public schools. It is my hope that during your first few months on the job you have been able to actually meet some of us.
While I’m not sure how many of us teachers you have been able to meet, there is no doubt that you have been busy. You have been looking out for the interests of the for-profit college industry, you have made it easier for schools to discriminate against transgender students, you have proposed a $1.2 billion cut to after school programs, and just today you announced you are going to roll back expectations on universities to protect victims of sexual assaults. Like I said, you’ve been busy.
After my first letter to you in December, I actually felt a little guilty though. In my attempt to introduce you to America’s public school teachers, I feel like it is probably more important that you are introduced to the young people that you and I are actually here to serve. As a 28-year teaching veteran with experience in public, private, rural, urban, and suburban schools, I sometimes take it for granted that those of us in education always have the interests of our young people at the heart of everything we do. While I think it would be a stretch to say that you are now an educator, you are now certainly a part of America’s public schools. Here is the thing, those of us who went into education to teach didn’t do it to become wealthy or to make a political statement, we went into education to support young people. I’m having a little more trouble trying to figure out why you chose to go into education. Your work in Michigan and your short tenure as Secretary of Education would suggest that you are eager to make sure that public schools have fewer resources and that you are eager to make sure that someone is making a profit in the education business. Your passion for those things hasn’t really panned out in Michigan, so I’m sort of curious about where American schools are headed with you at the helm (actually I’m not so much curious as a little freaked out).
See, the young people that we serve need us. From 2004-2014 the number of students served by public elementary and secondary schools grew from 48.3 million to 50.3 million. Projections suggest that the number of students in public schools will increase to 51.7 million by 2026. In addition to this notable increase in enrollment, we are also seeing the makeup of our students change. In 2004 19 percent of our students were Hispanic, while that number will grow to 29 percent by 2026. That is just one example of the changes we are seeing in our classrooms. I think it is important to recognize that those of us in the education business don’t get to choose who we serve (well, those of us in the PUBLIC education business don’t get to choose). We are proud to open our doors to EVERY young person who arrives at our buildings each day. Teachers know that it is our job to be in service to them.
I really do hope that you will take some time to get to know ALL of the students you now serve. Get to know the kids who look like they’ve walked out of the back-to-school ads, but also get to know the young people whose first language isn’t English, get to know our LGTBQ kids, and get to know our Special Education students. I think that if you get to know all of these young people it will change your priorities. Every new class of students I work with changes my approach to the business of learning, but at no point when I get to know my students better am I concerned with making sure someone is profiting off of the learning they are doing. If, after getting to know our students better, you find your time and influence being spent on protecting the interests of anyone other than our young people, I hope you will find another line of work. It’s OK, the field of education isn’t for everyone. I am sure you can exert plenty of influence in the private sector with your billions of dollars. What our students need from us in the business of education is that we put them first. Always.
Pat Kearney, a teacher