Betsy DeVos Secretary of Education nominee

I wanted to watch the entire three and a half hours of the Secretary of Education confirmation hearings, but time is quickly getting away from me. So, I will only comment on the portion I watched and not on the clips posted all over social media.

Senator Alexander made opening statements about Betsy DeVos’ commitment to charter schools and choice for students in low-income areas. This is commendable in theory, but I have concerns about school choice. First of all, school choice is a form of privatization. In Oklahoma a parent has the right to transfer his/her child to another school if the feel the child is not receiving a quality education or the school environment is not ideal. The school the child is supposed to attend cannot deny the transfer, however the school receiving the transfer has the right to deny the transfer. My school principal told me that most Oklahoma school districts student population consists of 50 – 60% transfer students. If Oklahoma goes to a voucher system and a school wants to keep class size at a reasonable number, what’s to keep that school from screening students who want to attend and only accepting a certain number of students. What happens to the students who didn’t get in. If the student has to got to their second choice or back to their original school, is that school choice?

My second concern is funding. School funding in Oklahoma is based on the districts Average Daily Attendance (ADA). I assume if Oklahoma went to a voucher system, the voucher will be worth the amount schools are currently receiving per student. I have heard Oklahoma spends anywhere between $4600 to $7800 per student. So, let’s split the difference and say a school gets $6200 per student. The entire district has 500 students (PreK-12th grade), that’s $3.1 million. Now let’s subtract spending.

The nutrition program – $800/student x 500 students = $400,000                             Special Education programs – $1470/student x 500 students = $735,000        Professional Development – $285/student x 500 students = $142,500                Vocational Programs – $90/student x 500 students = $45,000                      Transportation – $425/student x 500 students = $212,500                                            Student Support Services (ex. tutoring, after school program) – $755/student x 500 students = $377,500                                                                                                              Operations and Maintenance – $630/per student x 500 students = $315,000 Instructional Equipment/Technology – $200/per student x 500 students = $100,000

That only leaves $772,500  for teacher salaries and benefits, support staff salaries and benefits, utilities, janitorial services, curriculum, and mandatory testing costs. (amounts used came from Tables 13 & 14 in the Public Education Finances:2013 document issued by the Educational Finance Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, June 2015). School funding comes from federal programs and grants, state sources, and local property taxes. In my example above I based voucher amounts on state funding sources only. Will vouchers be based on the national education spending average which is around $12,000? State funding of $6200? Or local property taxes, which would be devastating to rural school districts? In order for vouchers to be sufficient, the amount would need to include all funding sources at the federal, state, and local level. The government wants to go to a voucher system to save money, which leads me to believe voucher funding will only come from one source.

Senator Murray also made opening statements. She stated her concern for vouchers going to unaccountable schools, and flexibility with accountability. Sen. Murray also brought up that Mrs. DeVos turned in an incomplete ethics statement, did not release her tax returns, her family’s large contributions to organizations that are “anti-LGBT” and “anti-women’s health”, and her advocacy for the privatization of schools. Sen. Murray said she would like to discuss where Mrs. DeVos stood on the Every Child Succeeds Act, tackling the achievement gap, Title IX federal funding, the civil rights of students with special needs, and early childhood programs to prepare children for success in Kindergarten.

I have some of the same concerns as Senator Murray. I think what she meant by vouchers going to unaccountable schools and flexibility with accountability, is that private, charter, and virtual schools are not required to adhere to mandates or standardized testing. So, if tax dollars fund vouchers and there is no accountability, how do I know my taxes are being used more efficiently than they are now? How do we allow the flexibility of school choice and keep ALL schools, not just public schools, accountable? As for DeVos’ incomplete ethics statement and not releasing her tax returns makes me wonder why? What is she hiding? Wouldn’t her tax returns show evidence of her commitment to help low-income students? As a private citizen Mrs. DeVos has the right to contribute to organizations that share her passions and values, but as a public governmental official how, or will she, keep her personal views separate from her duties as Secretary of Education? As a teacher, I was not allowed to make political or religious statements. I also was not allowed to discuss students, parents, or co-workers because it violated their privacy (FERPA). As for federal laws such as Every Child Succeeds Act, Title IX, and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (civil rights of students with special needs), it is her duty as Secretary of Education to oversee and enforce these laws. However, will she force private, charter, and virtual schools to adhere to these laws? How will she narrow the achievement gap? Lastly, where does she stand on the importance of early childhood programs?

Senator Scott introduced Betsy DeVos to the committee. He said that DeVos is for accountability of all schools and an advocate for low-income students being “trapped in underperforming schools”. He also mentioned the charter school Mrs. DeVos and her husband founded in Grand Rapids. “Trapped in underperforming schools” this tends to be a generational issue. What are DeVos’ views on helping parents to have the opportunity for further education? Whether it’s helping them to get their GED, going to a trade school or college, or providing job training. The charter school her and her husband started in Grand Rapids, what is the criteria for applying? is there a screening process? what is the typical home life of the students?

Former Senator Lieberman also made introductions. He noted her AFC bipartisan support, team building skills, and her mentorship in Grand Rapids Public Schools. Bipartisanship, team building, mentoring, are all great qualities, but how does that qualify her to be Secretary of Education.

Next Mrs. Betsy DeVos addressed the committee before the round of questioning began. Mrs. DeVos said she was a strong advocate for public school. She believed that parents want a better future for their children and teachers want to break away from standardization. DeVos stated that the best schools are not always the right school, because students are all different. She pointed out the higher education costs are rising. DeVos commented that we need to look at different paths to learning and that college is not the only option for success. Therefore, we need to support more trade schools and community colleges. She said that she will support the Every Child Succeeds Act. DeVos also made the statement that education needs to go back to local control.

I don’t believe you can be a strong supporter of public schools and advocate for charter schools at the same time. If she was truly a strong supporter of public schools, why isn’t she endorsing programs to aid low preforming schools. Why isn’t she financing tutoring and mentoring programs? If she knows teachers want to break away from standardization, why not lobby to do away with it, instead of encouraging parents and teachers to leave public education. Mrs. DeVos is correct, sometimes even the best schools are not the right fit for every student, but this is rare. Every student is different but can be grouped in to common learning styles. Teachers are different as well. Why not make more of an effort to match student learning styles with compatible teaching styles? Give teachers back the freedom of creating unique learning opportunities for their students. Another solution is provide technology to every student. The teacher can then tailor individual lessons to meet individual learning needs and styles. Higher education costs increase every year. Yes there are alternatives to furthering once education. I disagree with Mrs. DeVos that you don’t need to go to college to succeed. You can get a good job and live a decent lifestyle, but there is a limit to how far you can advance in a company. Some people are fine with never reaching the top of the ladder. Others simply go back to school and get a degree so they can reach the top. I believe Mrs. DeVos’ statement that you don’t have to go to college to succeed sends the wrong message. I was pleased to hear she supports the Every Child Succeeds Act, but does she believe that ALL types of schools should abide by this law. Finally, Mrs. DeVos said she believes control should be returned back to the local government. So does that mean that federal laws like IDEA won’t be enforced? Is the federal government going to give funding to schools freely with no rules or regulations? Or will federal funding be entirely cut? If control is turned over to the local government, what will be Mrs. DeVos’ role and purpose in education?

Senator Enzi started the round of questioning. His questions were aimed at rural and frontier schools. Sen. Enzi would like more funding to go to the schools and not stay in Washington DC. One of the questions I felt was important was, how DeVos would engage rural schools in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? DeVos’ response was the option of distance learning. Distance learning requires high speed internet. Have you ever tried to make a phone call on your cellphone in the middle of nowhere? Have you ever tried to connect to the internet in sparsely populated area? You can’t. My dad drives a semi and he might have to travel over 100 miles before he gets a cellphone signal or Wi-Fi signal strong enough to make a call or use his laptop. The only reliable connection source is via satellite. Is Mrs. DeVos going to allocate funding to provide every student in Wyoming and other sparsely populated area satellite connections?

Senator Murray had harder questions for DeVos to answer. Sen. Murray asked Mrs. DeVos to commit to not privatizing education. DeVos would not commit and responded that she wanted to empower parents. When Sen. Murray asked about conflict of interests, DeVos responded that her and her husband would severe ties with the organizations to which they contribute. Sen. Murray followed up by asking if DeVos would use her wealth to influence her agenda. DeVos responded by saying her and her husband would not be involved in political contributions. My only comment to this line of questioning is that I thought Mrs. DeVos’ answers were vague and in some instances she did not answer the question.

Senator Isakson discussed the work of a task force in his state of Georgia. He asked DeVos if she would commit to the recommendations the task force had made concerning higher education, such as simplifying the financial aid application process. DeVos responded that what the task force was doing in Georgia sounded promising, and that she would commit to making the financial aid application simpler. She commented that the process should not be more complicated than necessary and also mentioned The Potter’s House. In Georgia every four year old has access to early childhood education programs. Sen. Isakson asked if DeVos would commit to making these programs accessible nation wide. Her response was that it was an interesting approach and she looked forward to seeing the states explore such options. Isakson ended his questioning with the statement “the nontraditional student of yesterday, is the traditional student of today.” I wonder how familiar  Mrs. DeVos is about the financial aid application process. I would have liked to hear what she would do specifically to simplify the process. I thought the Potter’s House was a church organization, so, I researched it. I found the church, but still could not make the connection to financial aid. I was excited to here that Georgia makes early childhood education available to all four year olds. DeVos’ response to making Pre-K nation wide and to the Georgia Task Force recommendations concerned me. Her commenting the idea was “interesting” and “promising,” was a sign to me that she did not value the Pre-K program or the recommendations of the task force.

The last Senator I watched was Sen. Sanders. He began his questioning by asking how much DeVos and her family had contributed to the Republican party. She did not know. He asked if it could be $200 million, and DeVos acknowledge it was possible. He followed up by asking if those contributions helped her get the nomination for Secretary of Education. She denied that was case, that she was nominated based on her work in providing education options to parents. Sen. Sanders then turned his questions to higher education. He asked Mrs. DeVos if she supported tuition free public colleges and universities. DeVos said it was an interesting idea but that nothing is free. Sen. Sanders came back with comments about the huge tax breaks billionaires receive while poor kids cannot afford to got to college. He then asked if Mrs. DeVos thought that was fair. Her response was that she would be willing to work together to make college more affordable for low-income students. Sen. Sanders mentioned the burden of childcare on a single parent making $30,000 a year and paying $10 – $15,000 a year in childcare. He then asked DeVos’ thoughts on universal childcare. She agreed the cost of childcare can be a burden but she would like to ensure that parent has the opportunity to provide their child an education in the future. Sen. Sanders asked if she would be willing to look at countries who provide universal childcare. She responded that she would rather help that parent get a quality education so their child can have a brighter future.

I believe the DeVos family’s contributions had a huge influence on her nomination. I also agree with Sen. Sanders that doing away with big tax breaks for the wealthy would provide more funds for tuition free higher education, universal childcare, and much more. Again DeVos came across to me as not valuing the solution to issues low-income families face. Yet, she says she is committed to providing choices for a quality education for all.

This is where I stopped watching the confirmation hearing (at 1:10:50). There were two clips I saw on social media that caused me concern. One was  questions and responses pertaining to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Second, discussion on proficiency and growth. As I said at the beginning of this post, I will not comment on these clips because I did not view them within the context of the hearing. I will comment on the importance of IDEA. IDEA is not just for students with severe learning disabilities. It is for students with physical disabilities, health issues, and emotional/behavior disorders. If a student is in a wheelchair, under the law the school is responsible for providing ramps, bathroom stalls, and other wheelchair accessible facilities. Children with autism often need a companion to help them cope and interact with other students. Students who have been severely abused or were “drug babies” suffer from behavior and emotional disorders that must be addressed in a specialized way. Students with severe asthma, food allergies, or diabetes must have immediate access to medications and be monitored for possible attacks. All of these situations fall under IDEA. I believe ALL schools public, private, charter, and even the virtual school to some extent, must accommodate students with special needs, regardless if it is a physical, emotional, behavior, health, or learning need. As for the discussion about proficient versus growth. Standardized test scores group students as advanced, proficient, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory. Due to learning disabilities and other factors beyond the students control, some students may never reach proficiency. Others may make strides toward proficiency but at a slower rate than most students. This is where the argument for measuring student success by growth comes in to play. Did their knowledge improve? Did their test scores and/or grades continuing to improve? The same concept applies to schools. Instead of writing off low performing schools, we need to investigate why they are low performing. Are the students properly clothed, eating nutritious meals, living in a safe environment? Learning is very difficult when your cold, hungry, and scared. Schools with a high percentage of students facing these issues will reach proficiency at a slower rate. Basic needs of the students need to be met before any significant change is student performance can occur. If the school is making every effort to help families meet these basic needs and student performance is improving, I don’t think they should be penalized and labeled low performing. However, basing student performance on growth in schools with high test scores can be a disadvantage. My last school always scored at or above the state average, but if our scores did not go up 5%, we risked being put on the bad school list. So what’s the solution? There is no one size fits all solution. How to accurately assess one school or student is going to be unfair to a school or student in a different situation. If we measure school by different scales there is no uniformity.

That my friends is my take on the nominee for Secretary of Education, my views on school choice, and the state of our public schools.

If you would like to view Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing, go to the following link.

https://www.c-span.org/video/standalone/?421224-1/education-secretary-nominee-betsy-devos-testifies-confirmation-hearing” target=”_blank”>Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearings

Until Another Day,

AC

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