Dear Senator Casey,
As you gear up for the confirmation hearing of Department of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, I ask you to consider the deep implications of what her vision for education entails.
I recently read a piece by Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, touting the ways in which DeVos has worked to improve education for all children in the states and cities where she has placed her money, influence and efforts. Unfortunately, Governor Jindal is oversimplifying the concept of “school choice” to vilify anyone against the idea of a great education for all students and to paint those who question the idea as trying to maintain a broken system.
In my over 10 years of teaching in Philadelphia, I have worked in schools inside the School District of Philadelphia and in the charter system. I have collaborated with educators across the country, including other parts of Pennsylvania, who work in public, charter and independent schools. I say this to say that I am not biased toward one kind of school. I think that having options is a good thing.
However, I also work at a public, district-run high school here in Philadelphia that draws kids in from all over the city. I have 16 year old students who travel almost 2 hours each way to get to school and home every day. During the winter, they leave their house in the dark and they get home in the dark. Part of what school choice has done in Detroit is create a system where parents are forced to travel for miles to take their children to school. I can’t imagine a parent traveling almost 2 hours every morning to get their 1st grader to school and then making it to work. This is what happens when school choice causes the neighborhood school, the school down the street, to close.
Here in Philadelphia, we are the poster child for “school reform.” We have turnaround schools, consolidated schools, charter school networks, cyber charter schools, independent schools, special admit public schools, and, of course, neighborhood public schools. We have had school choice for a very long time. I have watched as families have had more and more options where to enroll their child through the charter system, and I have witnessed the District innovating and creating new schools to meet the needs of families, as well as individual District schools innovating to provide unique programs to their families. All of this with fewer and fewer resources available. I have also watched as families moved their children from District-run schools into charters, some that do not perform much better, and I have watched corruption scandal after corruption scandal as people try to make a profit off the price tag attached to each kid’s head as they are enrolled in a charter school. Money in Philadelphia’s charter system already follows the student and it has left the District schools in a position where they are tasked with educating an increasingly challenging population with fewer resources.
In a voucher system, who is regulating how these funds are spent? How do we prevent the opportunistic company who comes in and tries to get into the education game with all of the free flowing money now pouring into the system? Who will educate the students with special needs or the students who do not meet admission criteria for these schools? Independent schools are not required to take everyone, whether they have an IEP or not, and, in my experience, a charter school can also tell a parent that they do not have the capacity to meet the IEP goals of a child, and thereby refuse them entry (I’m not sure if it’s legal or not, but I have seen it happen). In addition, who will regulate the cyber charter schools, who receive the same funding per student as brick and mortar schools, but have half the overhead? How will we know that students are being well educated if many of these schools are not required to track data on student progress and achievement? How do we know if they are meeting the needs of ALL students if that data is not required to be tracked? While I am not a proponent of high-stakes testing, data is important to know whether we are reaching all of our kids in the classroom, and schools can collect and report this kind of data in a number of ways. As you know, our state legislature has no interest in regulating charter schools, and it has been to Philadelphia’s detriment. How will the state, then regulate the performance and creation of new schools under a voucher system?
These concerns are just one piece of the concerns I have about DeVos’ nomination. It is hard for me to imagine putting someone in charge of the Department of Education who has never sent her children to public school, attended public school and whose philanthropic efforts to reform and overhaul public education in Michigan have created a “wild west” education system for families in Detroit.
As a parent of a 2 1/2 year old, these conversations are not just about my views as an educator here in Pennsylvania, but also as a parent of a future student here in the city. This is a subject that directly affects me and my family. As a homeowner and tax payer in the city, I am also wary of how my tax dollars are being spent (and am open to different ways of funding schools-hint, hint) and I do not want private corporations vying for my money as they try to get in on the education game.
Please consider these things as you prepare to vote tomorrow. A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a system that sounds good on the surface, but is not a magic bullet. There are many places where the education system is broken and the Department of Education is not perfect, but putting a person with a blinders-on view of public education and political connections to push through a frightening agenda for state public education systems is not the answer.
Thank you for your time,
Mary Beth Hertz
School District of Philadelphia
Mother of a 2 1/2 year future student in Philadelphia