Update (2/7/17): Today the Senate voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as the 11th Secretary of Education. In a rare maneuver, Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote after the Senate deadlocked at 50-50.
As a student of a Chicago public high school, there have been numerous times when I pondered whether we’d have enough funds to function for the school year or whether certain electives would be cut from the curriculum. I even fretted at the thought of my favorite teachers receiving a pink slip because of budget cuts the school district had proposed. With our country now headed by the Trump administration, I was eager to see if he would follow through with his promised advocacy of school choice, and to see how that might affect our public schools.
My name is Nathan Petithomme and I am a student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. At Lindblom, we have numerous student organizations that work for advocacy. We have a Genders and Sexualities Alliance that aims to help all students regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation feel safe in school, a Black Girl Magic Club that serves to empower African-American women against pressures from society, a Latino Culture Club that promotes awareness and educates the student body on Latin American culture, and a Student Voice Committee and Chicago Student Union group, among many others. We have teachers that care about us, counselors that strive to make sure our seniors have a path after graduation, and as Lindblom Eagles, we have a sense of community to “Protect the Nest.”
Does this not sound like a school that is prospering without competition from extra charter schools?
CPS’s budget is not spread around to promote equal achievement among students. In early October of last year there were talks of a possible teacher strike because of an unfair contract that included cuts to teacher compensation and large classroom sizes. With pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union, a compromise was reached to keep schools open and students engaged despite the fact that funding remains limited.
How can Betsy DeVos, the likely future Secretary of Education, possibly believe that stripping funds from publicly run schools in favor of charter schools and private school vouchers will make this country’s education system better? Stripping funds from already suffering neighborhood schools will effectively kill public education. It will harm students who still depend on these public schools for their education, and it will harm minority students and teachers who may be subject to discrimination by private schools based on religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, inevitably leading to mixed standards and an unfair playing field for student achievement.
School choice is the free-market ideology that says that if the state provides parents and families with the choice of private or public schooling, that students will do better in their chosen school. This ideology perpetuates the idea that having more competition among schools will lift student achievement. When commenting on school choice, President Trump wrote, “Competition is why I’m very much in favor of school choice. Let schools compete for kids. I guarantee that if you forced schools to get better or close because parents didn’t want to enroll their kids there, they would get better. Those schools that weren’t good enough to attract students would close, and that’s a good thing.”
However, this was not how school choice played out in Detroit. Betsy DeVos, was involved in the implementation of charter school expansion in Detroit, which gutted traditional public school funding. The Detroit Public School district is an example of why the school choice policy is not effective, because even after its implementation, Detroit still has one of the lowest-achieving school districts in the nation. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in Detroit ninety-three percent of public school eighth-grade students were not proficient in reading and ninety-six percent were not proficient in math. As a country, we should not involve politics at the expense of the education of our youth. Rather, we should work and strive for educational equity for all students.
Most people believe that an equitable education is where all students have the same shot at the American dream regardless of their background and ZIP code. Rather than strip funding from public schools, we need to improve teacher and principal retention rates, provide equitable funding for all students regardless of legal status, and actually listen to and sympathize with our educators who wake up every morning to teach children, often paying for supplies from their own pockets, as they are perhaps the most affected by the ongoing budget battles.
Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and advocate of school choice, doesn’t stand for public schools. Her tax records show that millions of dollars have gone towards campaigns to deregulate and advance charter and private Christian schools. She believes that school choice will “advance God’s kingdom.” After being questioned on educational policy during her Senate hearing, she was deemed unqualified and unfit for the position by numerous senators. We need a Secretary of Education who advocates for strong neighborhood public schools, not one that plans to dismantle them. We need a Secretary of Education who understands the value that education has for the youth of today—who will become the voting and working citizens of tomorrow. We need a Secretary of Education who will work to secure funding for public schools and pressure officials that cheat districts out of funds.
We need a Secretary of Education who knows that dedication to the education of our children reflects positively on our work, our values, and our country.
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