Image by Chip Somodevilla
Though Betsy DeVos’ outlandish confirmation hearing responses and Twitter mishaps have caused her to be the topic of jokes and ridicule, her absent qualifications, small frame of experience, and uninformed educational perspective absolutely terrify me.
You see, Mrs. DeVos has made it clear that it is her intention to discredit and take away much needed funding from public schools.
Betsy DeVos is a daughter of privilege. Her viewpoints and the decisions she has made regarding education reflect these privileges. She is an able-bodied individual from a white, upper class family, and who has had a charmed life in the farmlands of West Michigan. DeVos attended private schools for her elementary and higher education, where the curricula focused on Christian doctrine and was free of administrative panic about high test scores and graduation rates. Her children have been afforded this same privilege and have never worried about student loans for college. She is married to someone who is also of elite status. Given the millions of dollars her family has donated to the Republican party over the years, it’s safe to assume that she has never experienced financial insecurity and all that accompanies it.
I attended a public high school with a population that was 95% Hispanic, Latino, and Black. My classmates and peers consisted primarily of individuals who were of low to middle class socioeconomic status; some couldn’t afford new shoes or clothes, and others had issues getting school supplies. I had textbooks that were more than 10 years old, and graffiti carved into my classroom desks and lockers. Gang rivalries were an underlying presence, and school administrators had to be wary of their students possessing drugs. Every now and then, I would walk past violent, physical fights that would start and eventually be quelled by the sheriff on duty.
I knew some individuals who, after graduating from high school, decided to start working to help financially support their families. I knew some people who didn’t bother to entertain the idea of pursuing college because they were unable to afford or deal with the costs of higher education. Someone I used to know dropped out before the ceremony due to family issues and is currently unable to find a place to live.
So when I hear about Betsy DeVos’ plans for public school students, a sense of fear and overwhelming dread comes over me. Her plans do not favor my peers’ advancement, offer them opportunities to improve their social station, or take various other intersectional barriers into account. There appears to be no intention to invest in the future of people who have so much to offer, but are limited by their circumstances.
Mrs. DeVos, who has been afforded almost all the opportunities in the world, has never known, and will never know what these situations are like. She does not know the needs and concerns of those in the public education system, and given her track record…I don’t think she really cares either.
Betsy DeVos is primarily known for her support of school choice, in which students and their families would have the option to attend traditional public schools, public charter schools, or private schools, regardless of what city, zip code, or school district they are from. Under this system, students would allegedly be able to move out of their districts to attend privately owned and better performing schools elsewhere. However, this idea, though good in theory, is questionable in practice and cannot be applied to everyone. In order for people to be able to move school districts, they would need transportation in which they could get to their new school, and not everyone has this.
At my public high school, many families had one car or no car at all. Cars, new or old, were a luxury. The one car some families did own would be used by the parents or guardians in order to go to work, leaving their child the only option of walking to school. Many students therefore only had the option of attending the locally established public school. Though using the bus was an option, not everyone had bus stops within walking distance of their homes. People who were both enrolled at my public high school and worked jobs to help support their families had an added obstacle. Because DeVos seeks to remove funding from public schools and put them into her desired private and charter schools, many individuals will be deprived of a decent education and educational environment just because of their location.
Furthermore, school choice encourages the creation of educational systems meant primarily for an elite group. Many of the families who would be able to move schools would be from families who would be able to deal with the added costs of moving their children to different districts. In DeVos’ home state of Michigan where she has been able to implement this system, a majority of these families have been white and upper middle class individuals hoping to take their kids out of “bad public schools.” This would only continue the trend of segregated schools still existent in the United States, in which schools with large minority populations are not only given little to no resources, but are confronted with a growing achievement gap when compared to those of higher socioeconomic status. Though there is evidence contrary to DeVos’ claims of low educational equality in public schools, her attacks on the system continue.
Education has been frequently hailed as the great equalizer in American society, but just making claims about its possibilities will not benefit anyone. Betsy DeVos is in a position of power, yet she is acting within the confines of her privilege and uninformed classist standpoint. I’m terrified for my former high school peers because their futures are now in the hands of someone with an agenda void of intersectional considerations and instead filled with personal goals. These are people who have so many obstacles in front of them, but who are undoubtedly worth the investment.
I’m not going to be laughing the next time DeVos makes a gaff on Twitter or Capitol Hill; she has too much influence over the people and things I care about to not be taken seriously.