I watched the entire session; and you are correct that the nominee’s level of “not knowing” about the fundamental current issues in education was frighteningly astounding. And to my great sadness, her even being considered for the position, is a statement about how some people in this nation view the importance of public education. But putting aside the totally useless and cynical “committee hearing” process-format, which sought to obscure rather than enlighten the public; let us put the role of the SOE in its proper perspective. First, I have a more “expanded” definition of professionally qualified to be the SOE, that would probably call into question many of the Secretaries of Education of the recent past, that most people felt no strong objections to their assuming the post; in many cases some former secretaries were only marginally more “prepared” then Ms. DeVos to act in the role. But her total lack of comprehension of the issues and challenges of public education are unprecedented and extreme; and will mean that unlike many of her predecessors she will have less than 0 positive impact on public schools in the US. This means for those children who are on the margins, disenfranchised and disconnected from wealth and political power, a period of injurious, uninformed and ignorant neglect awaits them for the next four years. However, the schools serving the entitled, will go on unchanged in their effectiveness.
Secondly, the strong “localized” structure and format of public education; and the SOE’s limited power that is restricted to “acts” linked to federal funding; severely limits the power of any SOE to make dramatic district/school/classroom changes. The position of the SOE ultimately rest in its power to influence and inspire from a position of knowledge and experience; which is why the “one trick pony” charter school solution was exposed as theoretically deficient last night, for it will fail to solve the multilayered, regional and population specific problems that confront public education.
The vast overwhelming majority of students in America attend traditional public schools; those students will still be attending those same schools after Ms. DeVos tenure ends. And one tragedy of the hearing was that she was never forced to present her plan for making those public schools and students successful; even as she was pressed by a Republican senator who informed her that for most of the nation, charter schools are not an option and/or even wanted! Finally, she (and Mr. Trump), as many of us have learned, that assuming a public position of official responsibility, is very different from talking about that position, and “what you would do” if you had it!
However, there were some critical points that emerged from the hearing:
-Her possible financial conflicts of interest are troubling.
-Her lack of knowledge and solidarity with the goals and objectives of the: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must be freighting to adults with disabilities, and to the parents of students with disabilities.
-Her past donations to organizations that sought to discriminate against the LGBT community.
-Her inability to comprehend (admit, acknowledge) the poor performance of Charter Schools she helped to create in Michigan, was revealing and not promising.
-Again her lack of knowledge and support for the principles of Title IX, particularly during her response to a question, those sections that specifically address sexual harassment, sexual violence on college campuses. I could not imagine her comments were reassuring to the millions of parents whose children attend, or plan to attend colleges in the US.
-Her failure to deny Charter and Voucher programs the ability and right to “legally” discriminate either by forcing (they dishonestly say that parents “chose” to forgo their rights) to waive their child’s right to services identified in the child’s IEP. The ability of these charter-voucher schools to simply not choose students who have emotional or academic problems/challenges; or, at the opportune time, without much parent recourse, put them out. To utilize the little understood leverage of “parent push” (parents having the information and capability to seek out a voucher or charter school; will more than likely to be more active than the average parent in their child’s education.) All of these acts allow Charter Schools in some cases, to artificially post “better scores” than public schools. I definitely don’t want to be placed in the position of defending much of what is wrong with traditional public schools; but perhaps the charter schools in Michigan (Albany, DC, etc.) gives us some insight into what happens when charter schools began to take in large numbers of “challenging” students.
-One of the scariest parts of the hearing for me was the question that was not asked: With all of the above advantages (along with labor contracts and regulations relief); why did the Michigan charter schools (her work-product) perform only a few points better than traditional public schools? (For those few percentage points we made people like her rich?) Her total lack of self and programmatic awareness/evaluation does not bode well for US children. That past performance of the nominee in Michigan, should in itself be a disqualifying action.
-The Democrats must understand that the conversation of: The Charter School movement taking money from traditional public schools budgetary algorithm-analysis-argument, is only interesting to people who find it interesting. The Black parents who are choosing to send their children to charter schools, are doing so out of a desire to save their children from institutions they (rightfully) believe practice low expectations, and that champion adult employment over student academic success. These parents based on my many discussions with them are not interested in the charter-traditional public school debate. The Democrats will need, if they want to make a traditional schools argument and case; to work out of a playbook that is parent/student rather than labor organization focused. As both a principal and superintendent I always said that our “best defense” of traditional public schools is to produce the best schools (by getting out of our own way); and the parents will vote with their feet!
-The 800 lb. gorilla in the room was teacher unions/tenure rights and both sides conveniently and dishonestly (for their own different political reasons) avoided this important discussion. The Democrats because they represent an important constituency (more important than Black parents and students); and for Republicans it is the single topic that is used to justify the commercialization of public education.
-The other tragedy of the hearing (and I will stop here); is the destructive discussion, on the part of both Republicans and Democrats of Black students in the context of: “deficiencies”, “lack”, “gaps” and “underachievement”. Poverty, neighborhood, or level of parent education cannot as single or combined factors fully account for the terrible absence of educational opportunities for Black children, who have nothing wrong with their brains. There is just no meaningful local or national conversation about what to do with Black (or Latino) students who are on or above grade level learning standards.(And let us not forget about the lack of access to gifted and talented programs!) The majority of those students unfortunately, because of being ignored, fall into the “at risk” category of underperforming or failing. If as a nation we can’t make the majority of these students academically successful; then what chance do we have with those students who are a little or a lot below the grade level standards?
And so I am still waiting for that question to be addressed by our local and national leaders; my guess is that it won’t be; after all what would happen if a large section of the population is shifted from the criminal justice-social “fixing” industry, to being competitive and productive citizens? Black students must be removed from the role of being “political metaphors” in two equally non-productive and destructive educational conservative-liberal debate. My guess is that the communities that house these students will need to take, through collective-political and individual-independent acts, the educational destinies of their children into their own hands; if there is any hope that these students will be effectively educated.