Just Say No to Betsy DeVos

At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos will be a disaster. Ms. DeVos is a terrific Republican leader. She’s been effective as a pol, as a fundraiser, and as an organizer. She should stay in that realm.

Her only educational training in preparation to being Secretary of Education is that she went to school–all private schools. I don’t think having been a third grader qualifies one to make decisions about federal funding of public schools. She has made herself a long-standing and vocal advocate for school choice, vouchers, and public taxes used for private schools. I’m not sure how she chose this issue, certainly not from a lifetime of educational service.

Most readers know I’m a retired public school teacher, and I’ve been pretty vocal in my own circles about my dismay at Ms. DeVos’s selection. Some have suggested that I give her a chance before challenging her. Well, she may be a relative unknown nationally, but she is not unknown to me. I became aware of her in about 2003 when she was a vocal thorn in the side of then Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s public education programs. Ms. DeVos had been a school choice advocate for years, but was in agreement with former Governor John Engler and wasn’t in the limelight that being an adversary shines.

There are two types of politicians, those who truly work for bipartisan results to problem solving and those who like to use the word, but who’s definition is everyone coming around to their way of thinking. Betsy DeVos is the latter. She claims the desire to fix education with bipartisan support, but really means that the only way is for everyone to vote her way and support school choice. She is on record as saying her way isn’t only best, but the only choice for any future success.

I’m not against charter, focus, or religious schools for those who wish to enroll. Kids learn in different ways and some may thrive in the homogenous atmosphere of like learners with like interests and/or beliefs. The problem is that many, maybe even most, learn best in an atmosphere of inclusion. Public schools look like the United States. Public schools take in all comers and welcome them with open arms. Public school teachers know that training leaders requires said future leader to have prior experience leading the oleo of people with a far-reaching mix of ideas, interests, and beliefs that will not come from choosing to study at a school full of science nerds, or at one that only recognizes one religion.

The bigger problem is that if our country is rife with focus and religious schools to which one must apply, be judged acceptable, and be admitted, there won’t be room for everyone in those schools. Are we going to operate public schools with a population of the unfocused and nonreligious?

The biggest problem of all is that Ms. DeVos’s vouchers are just that, a set amount of money to spend. There is no guarantee that the school choice of any given family will accept the voucher stipend as sufficient tuition. The rich, or even those with moderate means can likely handle the monetary difference, but the poor cannot. Add to that any amount of travel to and from school and the poor are categorically eliminated from going to a choice school. This is the issue that needs to be adjudicated. If we spend a majority of our education tax dollars on private institutions, and every American cannot be more than theoretically included, there is a profound constitutional issue raised.

Many are vexed and voice concerns that educational expenditures are wasted on failing schools. That is a simplistic, misrepresented statement that needs to be shelved. We’re not looking at money to enrich teachers. Most of us have no interest in dramatically raised salaries–unless you insist… We didn’t become teachers to get rich.

What we need is twofold. First and foremost we need to recruit and train teachers so that they are prepared both academically and emotionally to face classrooms of kids. There have been many teacher education programs that gave preservice trainees more time in schools with real kids, more time to study, and more professional support along the way; they showed a lot of promise (see my column, “Education’s Third Face” in the April 7, 2016 MLN). But, they were canceled due to state funding issues. Making educational decisions based on budget or political concerns is a huge mistake. Secondly, schools are a part of our historically neglected infrastructure.

When looking to spend tax dollars, if we put well-prepared, enthusiastic teachers into well-equipped, pride-inspiring facilities, public education is all we really need.



  1. Jeanne O'Malley says:

    As usual the good Donnelly says what needs to be said.

  2. Mike Young says:

    We have tried all of Washington ideas and schools are still failing maybe even worse. Ms DeVos ideas are what need a chance. The inter-cities’ schools are a disgrace and are doing such a poor job that they need competition. The inter-city schools idea of inclusion is stand back and let the gang-bangers take over. All public schools want is more money but when they get more they want even more. Comparing the wages paid to a free enterprise school teachers, it easy to see money doesn’t make schools better you got to get rid of high priced administrative staff and remove teacher’s unions who don’t let poor teachers be fired. Consider that charter and religious schools take in students with little or no money a voucher would help them help more students.

  3. Terry Donnelly says:

    Mike, You’re just making an argument with no facts. Teacher unions do not make it impossible for poor teachers to be fired. There is a known system to follow that can and is followed. Many teachers are counseled away from teaching so firing isn’t necessary. Also, some administrators simply don’t want to do the work involved, so I have to partially agree with your point there. Money does make schools better as it takes money to run teacher training programs. There was a great one at the University of Colorado several years ago that had preservice students take a ninth semester to student teach after getting a B.A. It was a great program of which I have first-hand knowledge, and it was eliminated due to state funding issues. Also the facilities need to be shrines where learning can take place. They are not. They are at the bottom of repair lists and regular maintenance is often deferred until it is a problem. That takes money. As I stated in my column, we’re not asking for more money for employees, we want the money for the tools needed to teach. And, no, vouchers are not enough to cover all costs, so poor families cannot take advantage.

  4. Carol Ann Wolthuis Zomer says:

    Only those who have lived in the inner-city, attended the schools and then worked in the schools can understand what it takes to make an inner-city school effective. I have had almost 50 years of experience in a very diverse school system both as a students and an employee. I watched it change from a strong middle class populations to one that has extreme cultural differences. The system now has over 85% of its population on free and reduced lunch. Adjustments were made in academic presentations, class sizes, lunch programs and transportation. These adjustments cost school systems money and additional support. All of which gets taken away by those in government who have no idea what they are doing. It leaves me wondering if those who roam the halls of our government really want the children of the inner-city schools to succeed

  5. Mesquite Dave says:

    Ms DeVos is a billionaire thanks to her family starting Amway Corporation. As you know, money talks and money gets you appointed to a cabinet position. It does not matter whether you know anything but it does matter that you donated a ton of money to the GOP.

    • Teri Nehrenz says:

      Her husband’s family began Amway Corporation, not her famiy. Her dad was a self made man and employeed many blue collar workers. One of the wealthiest men in Michigan yes, she grew up ‘rich’ but hardly anything near the billionair status that the DeVoss family has. After his death, his company, which had three partners, sold for a little over a billion dollars.

      As a self made man there were probably lean years where the business wasn’t as profitable, like the beginning years so this is a woman who grew up knowing the value of hard work, education and what it takes to realize the American Dream. She supports a strong education for all students, not just those who can afford it. Public education is simply been lacking for many years but let’s keep letting it go on being broken? It’s like a car you you keep nickle and diming to keep it running, after a bit you’ve driven it into the ground; time to get a new one and plug up the bottomless money pit.

      • Terry Donnelly says:

        Ms. DeVos didn’t grow up with many lean years, if any at all. Her father, Edgar Prince, owned an automobile industry support corporation in Holland, Michigan. It was one of the most successful such die businesses in the state by the time she was 10. This was a time when the auto industry was king throughout Michigan’s economy. The company diversified and at one time employed nearly one fourth of the workers in Holland. She went to private elementary school, a costly private high school and Calvin College, also a private school. She didn’t need any money from her husband’s family. Plus, if we want to “trade in” public schools, there better be some activity on a Constitutional amendment.

        • Teri Nehrenz says:

          Regardless of how many lean years she may not have had, she still came from a self made man. He made automobile parts but he was an engineer who made several things besides automobile parts; that just became his major customer after a while. So Ms. DeVoss didn’t need her husband’s money…no point there really, she grew up knowing that private education offers much better quality than it’s public counterparts. They are talking about allowing vouchers for the private schools so that children are allotted a supreme education regardless of economic situations. I know public schools don’t work, they are a joke and were just 5 short years ago when my step son was still in school, I’ve seen 5 children through public schools over the past 30 years and myself just 35 years ago. Standards in teaching are a joke, school budgets are a joke. Education money all goes to the DoE bureaucrats and very little trickles down to the actual students. Outdated text books, not enough text books, teachers paying out of pocket for basic school supplies. Meanwhile the “Fees” are going up and the quality is going down. Extracirricular activites gone unless you can afford to pay to play…It’s a joke and needs serious reform. Cleveland schools tried bussing for several years to give the underpriveledged kids a chance at a “better neighborhood” education and the kids from the better schools got bussed to the ones that the innercity kids were escaping…does the term beating a dead horse mean anythign to you. What a disaster that was for YEARS and nobody got a clue for a very long time. Let’s not even talk about the absolutel financial mess that made of the budget with the need for longer hours due to the transport of the kids, longer hours for teachers and support staff. Let’s not even talk about how often kids were left at schools 20-30 miles from their homes, after dark, young ones…bad neighborhoods. Yeah, someone needs to do something, our students today are dumb and dumber. National test scores very low, illiterate graduates and getting worse all the time.

          • Terry Donnelly says:

            Respectfully, Ms. DeVos can’t compare public with private education because she’s never had a day of experience with public schools. My point is that someone with absolutely no respect or familiarity with public schools should not be running them. Much of what you write above is true and, in my opinion, helps me make my case. I was involved as a teacher with forced bussing in the early 70s at its onset. The disaster it created is a prime example of people outside education making decisions for schools. The nuts and bolts of bussing were not decided by educators, rather politicians. Taking students out of their community is not the best way to get a total education and one no teacher would ever suggest. One cannot be enculturated in a school climate if they get to school right at the bell and have to leave to catch a bus. The only way to make the situation better is to improve the local schools across the country–that’s an infrastructure issue. The standards we have now came from testing developed outside the realm of education, again by pols who valued data over content. This is opening another can of worms, but that mistake illustrates the need for a set of national content standards driven by educational decisions. Again, I’m not anti private schools. I’m just against any public funding going to them. You gloss over where the money goes, but mostly it goes to other projects outside education. School funding is cut nearly every year as costs go up. Even Gov. Sandoval, who supports public schools, hasn’t been able to effect any real change in school funding.

          • Teri Nehrenz says:

            I’m not sure about having to have been there to compare the facts. Truth in numbers can be researched without having to have been educated publicly. Anaylists study the numbers all the time and the numbers certainly don’t lie. I don’t really know the answers Terry, and I’ll have to rely on your opinion as you’ve seen it from the teacher’s perspective and I haven’t. I know public school is underfunded and there are TOO MANY people deciding what’s best for the kids but I really don’t think the kids are who they’re thinking about really. You’re right, people who are not educators should not be deciding what’s in the best interest of our student’s education or what are the best methods to use. Tried and true experience should carry tons of weight in the decision making process, unfortunately it does not.
            I know it was the decision of the bureaucrats on the bussing and that is what I’m talking about…people wasting valuable education dollars on “EXPERIMENTS” using our children, our future. When these experiments prove to be a disaster, who is left confused by the change? Everybody, parents who have to help the kids with the “new stuff”, kids who are used to doing something one way now have to rethink a process (Which in itself isn’t a bad thing but for the smaller kids who are just beginning their education during those shift years…)Wasting money, time and still not listening to the ones who are actually trying to teach the students something or to the parents who are just as confused. The dumbing down of America at it’s finest. I don’t know if she’s the answer but those in charge in the past certainly haven’t been. Gotta give people a chance to prove themselves otherwise we’d NEVER do anything different or better. The present regime has had theirs, they did nothing to better the cause.

  6. Wayne Benenson says:

    Brilliant piece Terry. This column speaks my mind. I have over 30 years teaching in diverse systems (public school, private schools, religious schools, charter schools) as well as two decades as an education professor at three universities. Budget cuts and the politics of exclusion have created a Swiss cheese public school system. At the level of providing basic skills (reading, ‘riting & ‘rithmetic) money does matter. For schools to thrive, there needs to be consistency, I.e research-suppirted. best-practice programs need to be funded for the long haul and not subject to tampering by the politics of the day. Truth be told, we do know what works in education. However, unlike professionals in law or medicine, teachers and public school administrators do not make policy and practice decisions. For what it’s worth, “experience matters.”

  7. Carole L. Rawlings says:

    I feel the same way lets try something different. But a lot of these children are not responding to education. Public Schools really are not working. Carole

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