Today the Senate confirmed the nomination of Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education. It required the vice-president to cast a tie-breaking vote. By doing so, Pence helped seat one of the most unqualified persons ever to fill the office. DeVos was born into a billionaire family. She married the scion of a billionaire family. DeVos attended private schools and has sent her children to private schools. She did not earn a degree in education, nor has she ever been a teacher. The only reason she was nominated was because of the millions of dollars she and her family have donated to the Republican party. Her advocacy for charter schools and vouchers stem from a desire to lower the price of private school tuition for other rich parents, because, quite frankly, a voucher won’t get families below the poverty line very far. The effect of the vouchers on the public school system will be to reduce the resources available to them, plundering the education available to poor families just so rich families can have more money to go on vacation.
I have strong feelings for public education. I am not blind to its shortfalls. Too often the brighter children are frustrated at the pace of learning, too often the slower kids are aged out of the system without getting the education they need to thrive as independent, productive adults. The current administration has demonized the public education system like they have demonized everything else they dislike. Their vision of public schools is like their vision of the inner cities: broken, violent, decaying infrastructures. It is true that there are some schools that fit this description, but the majority of schools provide good educations that are ladders to the middle class for many. Furthermore, a strong public school system lays the foundation for a cohesive and knowledgeable society.
I grew up in a minority neighborhood in Los Angeles. My parents immigrated to the United States with nothing, not even speaking English. My father held and worked three jobs simultaneously, as a delivery truck driver in the mornings, as a valet during the day, and as a dishwasher at night. He and my mother scrimped and saved, and they eventually opened their own small takeout restaurant. With five kids, however, we remained below the poverty line and qualified for free lunches through high school. Even with vouchers, there would have been no way that they could have afforded to send us to private schools. They knew, however, that education was the avenue to success in America, just as Horace Mann did in the mid-1800s. Today, with the help of the public school system and state and federal financial aid, my siblings and I are all college graduates, have advanced degrees, and are working professionals in the engineering and medical fields. Three of us have proudly served our country as naval officers. This is all within one generation. In 2013, the average cost of providing public education through high school was roughly $120,000 per student. This figure includes teachers’ salaries, maintenance of facilities, utility bills, purchases of computers and books for the schools, etc. While this number is not insignificant, consider the fact that, as a result of that investment, there are five more highly productive, responsible, self-sustaining citizens in the country who together pay hundreds of thousands in taxes EACH AND EVERY YEAR.
DeVos and her supporters wish to dismantle public education in favor of a pay-for-play system. They present it as giving “choice” to parents, but it is really a gift to the rich, to those who can already afford to send their children to private schools. The vouchers that would be provided won’t be for the amount that is currently being spent; it will be for a fraction of that. It would be enough to discount the cost of private school tuition, but not enough to do anything for those who do not have much in discretionary funds. In addition, DeVos has refused to state that she would hold private and charter schools to the same standards, so schools like Trump University can crop up everywhere to profit from the vouchers without meeting any meaningful requirements. In the DeVos scenario, caveat emptor—and if parents get taken in by slick, fast-talking shysters pretending to offer a solid education for their children, well, it’s just too bad, because it’s the parents’ fault for not being better educated consumers. The confirmation of DeVos is another example of an administration committed to installing highly unqualified supporter-donors in powerful positions; in other words, cronyism. In Trump’s world, the rich get richer and everyone else can chase after their crumbs. With Cabinet appointees like DeVos, we will get there swiftly.