Betsy DeVos and Learning in Place

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Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D., Knoxville, TN.

I was among the many who called Senators urging them to vote against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I don’t have voluminous knowledge of who she is—I read a few articles about her and her policy advocacy in Michigan. But with my extensive experience in schools and studying education, it is not hard to see that DeVos is both unqualified and a threat to public schools at all levels.

As I understand her work in Michigan, she threw her vast wealth into lobbying for the least restrictive charter schools policy in the country. The result: Michigan is known to have the worst charter schools in the country—a story on NPR about a charter school for aspiring airplane pilots in Grand Rapids also discussed the typical results of “family choice” style policies like those DeVos champions: greater inequity, significantly lower test scores.

I do not see test scores as a gold standard for measuring school success. But when people of a mind like DeVos are allowed to shape policy, their goal is more schools like the aviation school—even if it means the common wealth of public schools is degraded as a result. There is no interest in maximizing the good for the highest number of citizens. The perspective is shaped by antiquated notions of social Darwinism: those that want to be pilots deserve more than those who may or may not know what they want yet, or may or may not have access to the resources required to attempt to attend an aviation charter school. The good of those students who can attend the few amazing charter schools is elevated above the rest of the population, whose test scores may dip by double-digit percentiles.

I oppose school choice and privatization policies in part because they elevate the notion of tax-payer over that of citizen. They encourage people to change schools, often leaving an under-utilized building with history, ties to a community, and perhaps in need of commitment from its constituents. They severe community members from their places. They factionalize. Research shows that the competitiveness they inspire does nothing to increase innovation or achievement.

What we will need in the time of DeVos is greater emphasis on a kind of social institution approach. Parents and community members must work to better their schools in whatever capacity is their strength. If a public school is a deficient institution, the public must work to better it. In the same way we protect the environment by repairing, rather than throwing away a jacket, so we protect communities and the ties between education and place when we work to improve public schools.

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