Public education needs support for success

In recent weeks, the nomination of Betsy DeVos for the position of Secretary of Education has received considerable attention from news media, politicians and ordinary American citizens.

DeVos, who is a staunch advocate for school choice and voucher programs, appeared before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Jan. 17 and faced many questions about how she would run the Department of Education, should the Senate confirm her.

A specific portion of the hearing that many have called attention to involved a question from Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington who was concerned about DeVos’ commitment to public education.

“Can you commit to us tonight,” Murray asked, “that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?”

For many outside observers, this question seems like a simple one with a correspondingly simple answer. But DeVos’ response was anything but.

Rather than definitively replying to the question, DeVos instead replied that if confirmed, she looks forward “to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students.” She went on to say that she was “hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.”

This statement is effectively the viewpoint of those in the school reform movement, who in the past have suggested that our nation’s failing schools limit children and that their parents should have the opportunity to choose which schools they should attend.

With respect to the claim that America’s public schools are failing, DeVos and her supporters are mostly right from a broad standpoint.

For decades, America’s public school system has been wholly inadequate in educating its students. Recent findings note that only one in four high school students graduate college-ready in the four core subjects of English, Reading, Math and Science and that roughly 1.3 million students don’t graduate on time every year.

About 30 years ago, the U.S. was the leader in terms of both quality and quantity of high school diplomas. Today, the U.S. ranks 36th in the world in education.

There are, of course, many factors that account for this development, but no issue is more important than the problem of teacher quality.

In 2015, The National Education Association affirmed that 14 percent of new teachers resign by the end of their first year, 33 percent leave within their first three years, and almost 50 percent leave by their fifth year.

As someone who spent a summer teaching in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system and watched far too many students fail their EOGs, I am the first to admit that America has a great deal of work to do in making sure that all of our children receive the quality education they need to be sufficiently prepared for the workforce that they will ultimately enter in the future.

Yet, while most Americans agree that our public school system is not working the way it should be for our students, the solution to our problem is not, as DeVos would have it, to make education a market-driven enterprise.

As Katie Kirchner, a program associate at the Roosevelt Institute, reminds us, “private institutions do not automatically serve to advance the public good more effectively or efficiently than public ones.”

The fact that our public schools are not functioning the way we want them to does not give us permission to abandon them altogether in favor of separate schools that are often unaccountable, and that frequently reinforce preexisting patterns of racial segregation in the classroom.

Data has repeatedly demonstrated that charter institutions as a whole do not outperform their public counterparts, so rather than funnel money into often poorly run charter schools that do not operate in the best interests of all American children, we should instead be investing in America’s public schools to ensure the best future for our country.

DeVos’ nomination should be rejected.