Betsy DeVos doesn’t get it.
But neither did Arne Duncan.
Whether right or left or somewhere in between, the person sitting at cabinet level tasked with advising the President on education matters invariably knows nothing about the purpose of public schools.
Duncan thought it had something to do with canned academic standards and standardized tests.
DeVos thinks it involves vouchers to religious or private schools.
But they’re both as wrong as two left shoes.
Public schools exist for one reason and one reason only – to meet the needs of children.
They aren’t there to enrich the private sector or even provide the job market with future employees.
They exist to teach, to counsel, to inspire, to heal.
And all these other schemes favored by Dunce Duncan and Batty Betsy that purport to meet kids needs while somehow enjoying the totally unintended side effect of enriching wealthy investors completely misses the point.
Public schools serve one purpose – to help the kids enrolled in them.
If someone is getting rich off that, there’s a huge problem somewhere.
Unfortunately, the Secretaries of Education of Donald Trump and Barack Obama aren’t the only ones to get it wrong. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have lost sight of this fact.
So have pundits and media personalities on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. So have CEOs and tech entrepreneurs and economists and anyone – really – whom our society seems to take seriously.
Don’t believe me?
Take the latest pronouncement from DeVos, our Secretary of Education.
She announced recently that she was looking into using federal funds to buy guns for teachers to better protect their students from school shooters.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is not in the best interests of children.
Teachers with guns mean a MORE dangerous environment for children, not less.
It means escalating the chance of friendly fire much more than boosting the possibility of a kindergarten teacher turning into an action hero.
It means heightening the chance of children getting their hands on these firearms and doing themselves or others harm.
And given the disproportionate murders of people of color even at the hands of trained professionals in the police force, it means children of color being legitimately terrified of their mostly white educators – or worse.
The reason given by DeVos may be to make children safer. But the measure she’s proposing really has nothing to do with them at all.
It’s a boondoggle for private industry – one private industry in particular – gun manufacturers.
Instead of sensible regulations on a product that’s at least as dangerous as items that are much more heavily controlled – such as cold medicine and automobiles – DeVos is doing the only thing she can to protect what she really cares about – corporate profits.
She is using money earmarked “safety” to increase danger.
Or as she sees it – she’s using a government apparatus that could harm the gun industry to instead pad its pockets.
You’ll hear some progressives and moderates decry this move with passion and fervor – and for good reason – but what many fail to realize is that it’s not new.
It’s really just a continuation of a sickness that has crept into our society about how we conceptualize the very idea of school.
We have moved away from the proposition that everything must be done in the student’s best interest and have replaced it with an imperative to benefit business and industry.
After all, what is the push for academic accountability through standardized tests and Common Core but corporate welfare for the testing and publishing industry?
What is the push for charter and voucher schools but government subsidies for school privatization?
High stakes standardized testing isn’t about helping students learn. Neither is Common Core, value-added measures or a host of top-down corporate policies championed by lions of the left and supply-side patriots.
They are about creating a problem where one doesn’t exist: accountability.
“How do we make sure students receive a quality education?” As if this has ever been hard to determine.
In general, the schools with greater needs than funding are where students struggle. The schools where everyone has more than they need is where they excel.
But they try to sweep the issue of inequitable funding and resources under the rug by framing the question entirely about teachers and schools.
In short, instead of asking about an obvious inequality, they hide a preconceived answer in the question: “How do we make sure teachers and schools are actually educating kids?”
Wrong question. But here’s the answer, anyway: Administrators observe teachers and determine if they’re doing their jobs. And school boards evaluate administrators.
In general, the staff isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of resources we give them to work with – everything from crumbling buildings, large classes, narrowed curriculum to a lack of wraparound social services.
It doesn’t take much to see we’re shortchanging our neediest students.
You don’t need standardized tests to tell you that. You don’t need new academic standards. You don’t need to evaluate educators on things beyond their control.
But doing so creates a new market, a need that can be filled by corporate interests unrestrained by the conviction that public schools are not supposed to be a profit-making venture.
People providing services for schools are supposed to make a living – not a killing – off the public’s dime.
The same can be said for school privatization.
Public schools are in no way inferior to institutions that are privately managed. Tax dollars administered by duly-elected representatives in the light of day are in no way less effective or more corrupt than the alternative – letting bureaucrats behind closed doors dole out the money however they choose even into their own pockets.
In fact, just the opposite!
Nor have charter or voucher schools ever been shown to increase student learning without also selecting only the best academic students and shunning those most difficult to teach, providing fewer resources for students and/or operating with greater funding.
But pretending that privatization is a better alternative to democratic rule creates a market, it opens the door so the system can be gamed for profit at the expense of student learning and wellbeing.
That’s why we look in awe at LeBron James, an athlete who uses his fortune to open a school providing all the things society refuses for students of color. A basketball player who refuses to usurp the public’s leadership role in administering that fully public school.
He’s a shinning example of actual philanthropy in an age of bogus philanthrocapitalism. But he’s also proof that his solution is not reproducible large scale.
The rich – even if they are well intentioned – cannot save us. Only the public can support all public schools.
And to do that, we must understand the purpose behind these institutions.
Otherwise, we’ll continue to be trapped on a runaway train where the conductor seems to possess no sense of urgency about slowing down.
We would never have been in this situation – and in fact could right the course even now – if we just took the time to clarify what we were doing and why we were doing it.
We could save generations of children if we stopped cashing in on public schools and realized the reason for their existence.
We could ensure both our present and our posterity.
If only we remembered that one thing.
Public schools are not for profit.
They are for children.