Ms. Rhames Goes to Washington: My Visit at the U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos mentioned me by name in her  keynote speech (starting at 29 min.) at the Brookings Institute last week. It happened while I was administering the standardized PARCC test to a group of third-graders at my Chicago charter school. “BDV shout out!” popped up in the subject line in my inbox from a woman in Washington, D.C. who I hadn’t heard from in over a year. What was BDV? I made the mistake of googling the acronym—don’t bother! At the risk of looking foolish, I wrote back, “What does BDV stood for?” Betsy DeVos, she explained. She attached a link to DeVos giving a lengthy recount of my recent blog about how I’ve struggled to find good public schools for my daughters. Wait, what? Wow. That’s amazing! Oh, God...what did DeVos actually say? Since I was testing, I wasn’t able to watch it for more than an hour. I started getting nervous. I sent a few friends the link and braced for the feedback. The responses ranged from “Congratulations!” and “You, go girl!” to “Is she co-opting your voice?” and “That woman should keep your name out of her mouth!” A light panic was settling in. While I stand by every word in my blog post, I had never imagined it would receive a national spotlight by the most controversial Department of Education (DOE) secretary in American history! My fears dissipated once I got a chance to watch DeVos’s speech. In fact, I agreed with almost everything she said. (Well, she got some details of my story mixed up, but whatever.) As I wrote in the blog post, I’m pushing for high-quality school options because my assigned neighborhood school has an average of 40 students in every classroom; no early-bird or after-school programs for working parents like me; and it may even close three weeks early as a cost-saving measure for the district to afford the $215 million it owes to the teacher pension fund. I heard DeVos say that she wanted to “disrupt” such public education systems by making them more “student-centric.” She is also proposing that education tax dollars be given directly to parents so that we self-select schools that meet our children’s needs instead of being assigned schools based on their home address. As a taxpaying, concerned mother of three, I liked the sound of that! But the devil is in the details, so I’m still skeptical. https://twitter.com/MarilynRhames/status/847136304265678848 The next evening, I got an invitation from DeVos’s communications rep to meet with senior staffers at the DOE the next day. As the Good Lord would have it, the education advocacy organization that had brought me to D.C. to speak at their symposium, mistakenly booked me a presidential hotel suite for two nights instead of one, and with Southwest only charging me $5 to change my flight, I told the DOE rep that I’ll see him at noon. But the fear came back: DeVos works for President Trump, so working with her is like working with him. As a Black, Christian woman, I often find myself in these sticky situations where I’m guilty by association. I’m either too ethnocentric to be a conservative or too religiously devout to be a liberal. For instance, if I say I’m down with #BlackLivesMatter, then people put me on the Left, and if I say I’m pro-life, then people put me on Right. So what does it make me if I say Black Embryonic Lives Matter? I called a fellow Black, Christian blogger for advice. He encouraged me to command the room at the DOE and remember not just who I am, but whose I am. I hung up the phone, put on my power suit, and took my place at the large table in DeVos’s conference room. But she wasn’t there. She was out of town. For the next hour and a half, however, I met with a combination of her chief of staff, her director of policy, and three communications staffers (all her comms guys were White men). We mostly discussed school vouchers. I let them know that any voucher system would have to include a measure of accountability that promotes school quality—not just allowing allows parents “choice.” In Chicago, I told them, White residents make up 32 percent of the population, but only 9 percent of Chicago Public Schools students are White. “Most White kids in Chicago are already attending high-quality public or private schools, so a voucher won’t really offer them ‘choice’ or ‘quality’ but financial support,” I told them. “Black families need more school ‘choice’ and school ‘quality’ and financial support.” The staff was extremely appreciative of my time and all but asked me to join their team. I wouldn’t actually work for the DOE, mainly because I’d have to resign from the top post of my nonprofit Teachers Who Pray, which is the most important work, in my view.  But I asked them to send me some job descriptions anyway. It’s fascinating: I firmly believe that education should not be a partisan issue, but I had a deep internal struggle about whether I would even show up for the DOE visit because of the politics. I told virtually no one that I was even going—not even my boss at Education Post! I felt conflicting emotions of shame, treason, excitement, and hopefulness all at the same time. Walking out of the DOE, I resolved to proceed with a pure heart and be an honest advocate for students—even if it means being vaguely associated with President Trump. Gulp. Coming next: My conversation with U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

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