The confirmation vote on the U.S. Secretary of Education nominee has been delayed until January 31, but the Senate needs to give her a few more years, not days, to prepare.
If you watched Betsy DeVos’s (first) Senate confirmation hearing last week, it might have brought back memories of the last time you took an oral exam. Specifically, an oral exam you hadn’t properly prepared for. Maybe you got very religious, praying for a few questions you could confidently answer. But your least favorite teacher wouldn’t let you off the hook. And yes, she saw sweat dampen your shirt as you stuttered and mumbled, responding with too many or too few words because you didn’t have the right ones.
Now review the DeVos hearing. Notice any similarities? Would you have given her passing marks? Her responses to questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act alone would have failed her.
In response to former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Senator Tim Kaine, who asked, “Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?” DeVos replied, “I believe that’s a matter best left to the states.”
But states’ unequal treatment of people with disabilities was the very reason Congress passed that important act. Clearly, DeVos hadn’t done her homework. And as if that weren’t enough, she actually defended school personnel possessing guns, because they might need “to protect from potential grizzlies.”
(An aside: If you’re on the pro-guns-in-schools side in a debate, don’t invoke grizzlies if you want people to take you seriously.)
No, Betsy DeVos is not prepared to lead our country’s educational system, but students, you must prepare for her.
DeVos is the billionaire philanthropist who said it’s possible her family has given upwards of $200 million to mostly Republican causes. With her money, she has gained access to politicians and influenced education policy throughout the country. She has championed the idea of “school choice” – the notion that parents should have freedom to send their kids to any school of their liking. The idea sounds great – until you read the fine print. What choice often amounts to is an escape hatch that doesn’t lead to a quality neighborhood school.
Unlike most of you, DeVos has never attended a public school. She never took out a student loan. DeVos has never served as a teacher, principal or member of a school board. Yet she is poised to lead our country’s federal education department.
DeVos does not represent the values of hard work and integrity your educators instill in you every day. You learn how to solve equations, conjugate verbs and make eggs float to earn grades that represent your mastery in those subjects. You are not supposed to purchase a grade, or become captain of your sports team without the respect of your coaches and teammates.
Bernie Sanders made it plain in DeVos’s confirmation hearing when he asked, “Do you think that if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions, that you would be sitting here today?”
Her hearing showed what’s wrong with our democracy. Our standards are corrupted. The system doesn’t work if merit is expected only of students, poor folk or people of color — not billionaires.
It’s easy to become cynical about schooling after watching the education secretary nominee. DeVos is like a rabid fan – a season ticket holder – who is allowed to play in the championship game. Seriously, she might as well name herself a starter for the Orlando Magic, which she partly owns.
But, dear students, I need you to fight cynicism. Reject a system that allows those without merit to rise. The country needs your critical thinking when the term “school choice” is used as code for breaking up black and brown school districts. We need your calculations to deduce that the money trail leads to corruption. Your fellow students need your public speaking skills to energize them.
Remember, you are not the first generation to seek a quality education under persons who played under a different set of rules. Look to your role models: Youth who were viciously bitten by police dogs and sprayed by water cannons were eventually credited for generating widespread sympathy for the civil rights movement, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of the more radical civil right groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as youth in the black-led Congress on Racial Equality, played critical roles in the civil rights movement. A 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated the all-white, public William Frantz Elementary School in the face of death threats and teacher boycotts. Learn from history, and resist.
Your peers who are members of grassroots organizing groups such as the Black Youth Project 100, Rethink and Advocating for Change Together offer contemporary models on how learning and teaching can be used to make sure government is responsive to communities’ needs. These organizations focus on how to get access to power for people without paving the way with millions of dollars. They demand that change come first and foremost from the people who need it.
My dearest students, you are not the first — nor will you be the last — to witness your “leaders” being held to a lesser standard, which ensures you receive lesser treatment. Privilege and power will always seem to reap benefits that you must earn through hard work. You have no choice but to fight using strategy and skill. Play chess while they play Monopoly. Rejection of Betsy DeVos and all that she represents starts with academic fitness.
DeVos may not be prepared for office, but you must prepare for her.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.