Hold DeVos accountable for her stumbles–because millions of students need her to do her homework

Listening to the hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, I thought of the 50 million preK-12 children she will affect in her role, as well as the millions of college students .

Then, as we so often do as human beings, I went from the macro to the micro. I thought of loved ones and friends whose lives she may impact in palpable ways. Listening to her touch on issues that may deeply impact them was, at times, emotional. I was hard-pressed not to selfishly think of them, as well as my own daughter and her classmates readying to enter kindergarten next year, seemingly under an Ed Secretary who is woefully unprepared. I thought about …

… my friend Heather whose son has autism

Of the four main commitments listed on the U.S. Department of Education’s Mission Statement webpage, the fourth is “prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education.” As the head of this department, DeVos’ ability and desire to do this deeply concerns me.

DeVos is, at best, confused about federal laws protecting students with disabilities, and at worst, so obsessed with state rights that she is loathe to protect a federal civil rights law—the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

When asked, “Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet IDEA?” DeVos replied, “I think that is best left up to states.” For kids like Heather’s son—nearly 6 million children and youth receive special education and related services—this issue is everything. IDEA protects the right of students with disabilities to a “free and appropriate” education, necessary IEP plans, and the guarantee that schools won’t discriminate against them. DeVos’ refusal to enthusiastically support an existing law and her complete lack of knowledge of that law, which affects so many, is unacceptable. (For more info on the law, see Vox’s coverage)

… my niece who is an LGBTQ individual

DeVos’ commitment to prohibiting and protecting against LGBTQ discrimination is questionable.

DeVos is a deeply religious person. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, as I have written about in the past, DeVos does not appear to see a demarcation between her private spiritual life and her public role in education. The separation of church and state is of utmost importance, particularly in our public schools. DeVos’ strong support of public money for private school vouchers (close to 80 percent of students who attend private schools go to religiously affiliated institutions) could easily support discriminatory entrance practices that bar LGBTQ young people, as well as marginalize LGBTQ students with teachings that deem them “sinful” or in need of fixing. For more, read this excellent piece from Matt Barnum at the74.

… my childhood friend David who was shot at a playdate

Though I grant DeVos was making a point that clearly matters to her deeply about state rights (as we saw with IDEA), her comment that certain states might need guns in schools to “fight off grizzly bears” was flippant, insensitive, and borderline ludicrous—making her the brunt of ire, memes, and jokes.  She also committed to supporting the president-elect should he choose to end gun-free school zones, which I personally find chilling.

Here are the facts. Guns kill kids. 2,647 children die from gun violence a year, according to the Brady Campaign. And smart gun laws around schools work. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence says federal laws restricting guns in schools have significantly decreased homicide rates. Grizzly bears do not kill kids. In fact, your chances of being injured by a grizzly, child or adult, in their widely populated natural habitat of Yellowstone National Park are 1 in 2.7 million … not in a year … ever. During the last 36 years, there have been only two human injuries caused by a grizzly in developed areas. The school in Montana that DeVos cited as likely having a gun sits on the edge of Yellowstone Park. They do not have a gun; the school district bans them, according to Politifact.

… my daughter (and all of yours) who must be protected from sexual assaults 

Again, we come back to civil rights. DeVos is simply not shaping up as a champion of them. She certainly expressed concern about the preponderance of sexual assaults on college campuses, but she stopped short of putting her support behind the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 rule that sexual assault is a form of harassment prohibited by Title IX federal anti-discrimination laws. Bustle reports that DeVos has also given funding to a group called FIRE that states as one of its major goals to “defend the rights of the accused,” including in sexual assault cases. One in six women are victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Any federal protection that can help lower these incidences and ensure our daughters, if victims, can get proper justice, is a protection we can’t afford to lose.

… any child who takes a test for accountability

Testing is a hot topic. Parents, educators, and everyone in between have opinions. Many others have done a better job on this topic than I will (see Vox here and the74 here) but it’s important to note here that our future education secretary doesn’t appear to have an understanding of a really important difference in test measurement: proficiency (i.e. did a student meet a “grade level” benchmark?) versus growth (i.e. did the student make progress over time). Many an education battle has been waged over this distinction, so our new general ought to know the basics.

In short, I came away from DeVos’ hearing with the sense that she knew a great deal about the issue that matters the most to her: expanded school choice without the accountability that matters. On most other issues, she fell short or missed the mark entirely.

Hearings are stressful, partisan affairs. This does not excuse DeVos’ serious stumbles, but I’m hopeful she will learn from the experience, surround herself with experts, and grow into her role.

If not, we need to hold her accountable, loudly and boldly.

What do you think?
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Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva is mom to a preschooler, wife to a teacher, and a social justice seeker in Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the Chief Communications Officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the Communications Director at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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