Despite my middling efforts, I was not invited to question Betsy DeVos ahead of her confirmation hearing as secretary of education—it certainly would have been nice to be invited. Alas, the hearing was on a school day, so even if I had been invited I would have had to say no. As a fifth-grade teacher in an urban school and having taught for eight years, I know a lot about how education policy has impacted kids. Here’s a few questions that I would have asked Betsy DeVos.
1. Ms. DeVos, you have been a long-standing advocate of school choice measures—believing that by increasing competition, you will encourage schools to respond adequately to the “market.” How will you help districts who want to increase school choice (and therefore competition) to pay for the transportation required in order to provide all students equal access to the school of their choice? In order for students to access these schools, they need a way to get there. This works out fine if your parents have a car and work the kinds of hours where they can drop you off at 8 a.m. and pick you up at 2:30 p.m. If, like so many of my students, your parents don’t have a car or work strange hours, then you’re going to need some help getting to and from school. Busing is the obvious choice, but busing is expensive—not every district can afford the additional burden of having to bus students from one neighborhood to another. In order for any school choice plan to truly be successful, busing—and the accompanying expenses—must be taken into account.
2. How will you make sure that private schools receiving taxpayer money are being held to the same standards of equitable education for all learners as public schools? Nationally, some of the largest achievement gaps relate to two demographics of students: students with special needs and English-language learners. One DeVos’ proposed policy initiatives is to increase access to school vouchers, allowing students to attend private schools that they might not otherwise be able to afford. Private schools are exempted from many federal education regulations, such as IDEA (covering requirements for students with disabilities) and Title III (covering expectations for the instruction of English-language learners). Therefore, a student with a disability could attend a private school and, legally, the school is under no requirement to provide an appropriate education for that child, creating a situation that is inequitable for students with disabilities. Likewise, private schools do not have to test English-language learners to make sure that they are making adequate progress towards learning English. This creates an inequitable situation for parents, requiring them to either forego the voucher money, or risk having their child legally receive an education that does not meet their needs.
3. Accountability being so important to the overall success of our students, schools and teachers, how will you ensure that all schools receiving taxpayer money are held to the same high standard? As a teacher in a traditional public school, I have multiple ways of being held accountable. My district uses a rigorous teacher evaluation system that incorporates multiple measures to ensure I am successful. My students must also take PARCC, a standardized test used to measure their mastery of grade level standards, and, if they are an English-language learner, ACCESS, a test to measure their mastery of English. These test scores are used to make sure my teaching practice is strong and that my school is successfully teaching all of our students. However, private schools are not required to implement these tests. In fact, there is no standardized method for assessing their success at teaching all students. A private school can teach students for whole generations, and fail many, many of their students without being held to the same accountability standards as a public school. The belief is that private schools will do a better job educating our students, but what evidence do we have to support that?
As you can see, the issue of school choice is far more complicated than it might seem at first glance. Without consideration to access, equity, and accountability, then we may find ourselves back to where we started: with a striking achievement gap that causes too few to succeed and too many to fail.