Betsy DeVos, Public Education and the American Dream

Yesterday, I published an extensive look at Betsy DeVos, her background, and the host of potential problems that come should she be confirmed as the next Secretary of Education.  I realized, however, that there wasn’t the context to evaluate DeVos against any norms or to think about why we, as feminists and Americans, should place a particular priority on the Department of Education.  I realized that I needed to spend more time explaining why DeVos scares and saddens me so very much.

I could be DeVos’ success story

To be honest, I was the type of student DeVos probably has in mind when she envisions making private Christian education the ascendent form of education in this country.  I am her ultimate American success story.  While I came from a family that could barely make ends meet (and often didn’t), I also went to fundamentalist, evangelical Christian schools from preschool through ninth grade.  The church was the center of my social and educational world for a very long time, and this wasn’t all bad.  For example, the church/school did attend to making sure my family had shelter and food when we needed but couldn’t get those things ourselves.

After spending my three high-school years in the public school system, I went on to a prestigious college, an even more prestigious law school, and a highly successful career.  While my family had to move at least 18 times before college, I now own a lovely home in the heart of DC.  Thanks to my education (and luck and family and scholarships and white privilege), I’ve moved from the bottom brackets of the American financial ladder to the top.

The quintessential American dream, launched with a private, Christian education.  At least, that would be DeVos’ take.  When DeVos imagines saving children, educationally and morally, I bet she imagines a me.

But.  Having lived it myself, I don’t see the credit belonging to those private Christian schools.  I did have small class sizes and caring teachers.  Some of those teachers were very good.  But others?  And the overall education I received?  When I compare my educational experiences with those who went to public schools, there are many things I missed.  Part of why I went to public school in 10th grade was to make my acceptance into the college and graduate school more possible, to make sure that my education began to resemble the more rigorous and well-rounded experiences of my peers in the public schools.  To give myself better and broader opportunities.

And when I consider the well-meaning and nurturing teachers with whom I interacted, I now wonder how many were truly qualified to teach.  Teaching is a demanding profession.  I know. Both my mother (public school) and father (private school) were teachers.  I, myself, was a public-school teacher.  And I know that it is not only what is taught, but the experience, skill and perspective of the teachers that also matters.

Simply put, I would not have received as strong an education as I did had I stayed in that Christian school.  My mind would not have been opened to the world and the vastness of the possibilities in it had I stayed in that Christian school because my teachers would not have been equipped to open those things for me.  Having lived it, I know that, to the extent that schooling dictated outcomes, it is public schools that enabled me to travel the path I have.  My story, though, is just a tiny sliver of a much much bigger picture.

Public Schooling and the Promise and Hope of an American Meritocracy

When I talk to family and friends who identify as falling on the Republican or conservative end of the political spectrum, they often cite public education as a (if not the most) significant reason why they believe that America is a already a meritocracy and that social programs to address poverty or discrimination are redundant and unnecessary.  In short, they believe America already provides equal opportunity because it provides public education.

This conservative vision of education as our “great equalizer” is intrinsically tied to race and the desire/hope/vision/belief that America has reckoned with entirely/sufficiently its history of racial oppression because it provides public education.  For those of us who believe that reckoning is an ongoing work, public education is a central piece (but not the whole pie).  What this means is that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, views education as essential to the American promise.

In turn, education should be one of the most important things our government should enable and protect.  This is especially true because, as my former classmate and the outgoing Secretary of Education John King explains in his interview with NPR:

Education is fundamental to the long-term success of our economy and our democracy. We need a strong public education system in early childhood. We need a strong K-12 public education system, and we need a strong public higher education system as well. Again, that’s not about party or partisanship. That’s just fundamental to the work of the Department [of Education].

The Role of the Secretary of Education

All of this is what renders terrifying a Secretary of Education like Betsy DeVos, who seems hostile to the actual realization of public education and who seems intent, instead, on the privatization, deregulation, and theocratization of our schools.

Moreover, DeVos seems uniquely unprepared for the role of the Secretary of Education as a civil rights enforcer.  Again, outgoing Secretary of Education John King explains:

The department is a civil rights agency with a responsibility to protect the civil rights of students and to ensure that school is a safe and supportive place for all kids. . . . We achieved a high school graduation rate of 83 percent because we’ve seen significant reductions in the dropout rates for African-American and Latino students. We can’t go back from that. And we’ve got 10 percent of our students around the country who are English language learners. Our success as a country depends on those students having excellent educational opportunities. We can’t go backwards on that. . . .

I understand folks’ concern about ensuring opportunity for the kids in our highest-needs communities, but the way we should do that is to have strong, high-quality early childhood education, K-12 schools that are providing a rich, well-rounded education that includes not just English and math but science, social studies and the arts, opportunities to take advanced coursework in high school, and then to have strong supports so that students can make the transition from high school into post-secondary opportunities.

Compressing down everything that is there, the Secretary of Education has to be looking out for all kids aggressively and has to understand and approach their work as civil rights enforcement.  The way this is accomplished is through two things: funding and oversight through regulation.  If a Secretary of Education does not see their role as a protector of civil rights, is interested in removing federal funding that helps to offset funding inequities at the state and local level, and is hostile to oversight and regulation, then the protection of all students is no longer guiding the Department.

And that’s what should make this a feminist problem.  DeVos is open about wanting to wage the culture wars through the educational arena.  The people most likely to suffer for her “reforms” are those most vulnerable in our society.

For all its flaws, public education is the thing that allows those who start with little but achieve much realize that path.  If we take that away, what is it that we are left with?  Lottery and luck.  And those are not the foundations of a civil society, nor an equitable one.




Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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