As a public school teacher of nearly 30 years, I found Phil Handy’s guest editorial regarding Betsy DeVos (published Dec. 22 in the Statesman) quite interesting.
Unlike DeVos — who did not attend public schools, who did not send her children to public schools and has never taught a day in her life — I have done all three. I have worked in inner cities and in the suburbs with children who span the gamut from learning-disabled to gifted. I have earned awards for my teaching. I am an advocate for truly public schools, ones that serve all comers no matter how difficult that task may be.
I believe that achievement cannot be measured by one test score and that learning is a process, not a product. Most important, I do not view students and parents as “customers,” as I am a teacher, not a salesperson. My work in the classroom is not designed to sell anything. It is to prepare my students to think critically, especially about how messages are being communicated and with what evidence. With that in mind, I’d like to clarify some of Handy’s points so citizens may make a well-informed decision about DeVos’ nomination as U.S. secretary of education.
Handy, who served for six years as chairman of the Florida State Board of Education, claims that public schools have “perpetuated cycles of poverty.” Schools deal with the results of poverty, not the causes. If he knew anything about students from poverty, he’d know that stability, not “disruptive change agents,” has a more positive and long-lasting effect on their attitude and achievement.
School rankings and labels of “failure” these days are nearly all predicated on test scores. The Foundation for Excellence in Education is a prominent proponent of testing to determine everything from school grades to teacher employment to learning gains. Last year, prominent donors to the foundation included not only The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation but K12, one of the largest online education companies in the country, and testing giant Pearson.
The Broad Prize for Urban Education was awarded concurrently to both Orange County and Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools in 2014, the last year it was awarded to a public system. It has been supplanted by The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. The Broad Foundation is also a major donor to the Foundation for Educational Excellence.
The Great Lakes Education Project, DeVos’ advocacy group, has invested millions of dollars to push choice and charter expansion in Michigan. That state’s charter schools rank near the bottom nationally in both oversight and academic achievement. In Detroit, a well-known whipping boy for anti-public school forces, fully 70 percent of the charter schools rank in the bottom quarter of all schools in the state. Detroit’s traditional public schools post higher marks.
Handy makes no mention of the truly abysmal performance of online charters, which rank near the bottom of nearly every available metric. No mention is made of the hundreds of millions of tax dollars lost to unregulated charter schools not only in Florida, but in many states — DeVos’ Michigan being a primary example — or the nasty tendency of these schools to resegregate systems that were previously more racially blended. Until charters are held to the same standards of quality, equity and fiscal accountability that we demand from public schools, then perhaps they are a “plague that must be contained.”
Mary Louise Wells of Maitland, Fla., is a former Florida Teacher of the Year finalist and currently teaches AP English.