February 10, 2017
Outside Michigan, Betsy DeVos and her family were not household names until her recent U.S. Secretary of Education nomination. The U.S. Senate confirmation hearing and then Tuesday, after Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic vote tie-breaking vote to save one of the Trump Administration’s most-polarizing cabinet picks, certainly made her known—for better or worse.
I will admit I was not happy over President Trump’s nomination, but not for the same reason as many. Given the long list of more experienced and highly qualified public education leaders available in the U.S, why DeVos?
She lacks the required knowledge of a federal department, regardless of President Trump’s ultimate goal to improve public education. I wonder if the DeVos or VanAndel families would hire me to be CEO of its Alticor holding company and more recently Alticor Corporate Enterprises that owns the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids given my 34-year career in small business management? I do use soap and other household products. To me, it’s not much different than appointing DeVos to her position. Not qualified.
My many own encounters with her and other DeVos family members as a former journalist and through mutual friends have always been pleasant and their public philanthropy unquestionable in West Michigan, as it has been in Petoskey, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs, where many of them have seasonal residences and business.
So why do so many think the Big Bad Wolf has come to blow the House of Education down? Is it because people are jealous of her family’s wealth and how they believe in many conservative political and religious activities? Is it because they participate in Republican politics and financially support politicians or issues they believe in? Isn’t that we tell people in a democracy? Get involved and support your beliefs whatever they are—liberal, moderate or conservative? Or, is it because her and her husband’s long-time advocacy for competition and “choice” in education through public charter and private schools supported by vouchers when 80% of U.S. schools are traditional school districts, but rapidly declining? The list goes on….
I watched her Senate Education Committee confirmation hearing last week with the nation and winced how ill-prepared she was answering questions on federal education laws as she also sparked the long debate over how to best improve U.S. schools, especially in lower performing urban schools like Detroit. She appeared unprepared or ignorant when asked questions, especially about federal laws related to education.
I tried to identify some common ground we shared just so I could better understand her. We have little experience in each other’s preferred public education system— charter and private schools vs. traditional K-12 public schools. We believe competition can be healthy in education, but probably not in the same way particularly in populated urban and rural unpopulated areas where transportation needs and economic conditions are so drastically different.
We would probably admit neither education system is flawless and have seen failure, but do share one common goal—providing a solid education for all students regardless of environment, race, religion or wealth. Unlike DeVos, I left a 34-year private sector career to become a public school educator to offer my experiences to a younger generation.
My 12 years in public education began after earning a M.A. in Education in Curriculum and Instruction (with highest distinction) secondary certification. DeVos, to the best of my knowledge, has not done the same to prepare, nor taught or attended traditional public schools. She and her husband have supported charter schools and vouchers for use in private schools for years. She financially supports and tracks charter school success.
I suspect she has a good grasp of her favored education approach –charters and private schools.
From my vantage point, public schools are not performing well as I deal with those who have been passed on through high school and now attend a college or university. Many can’t write, read or critically think for whatever reason. Some simply don’t show up, while other wonder why they won’t be getting a 4.0 if they do. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan made his concerns known last spring at the Mackinac Island Detroit Policy Conference. He said if schools don’t improve, the younger population living and making a success in Detroit’s downtown will have to relocate to suburban school districts when they start raising families for better education.
If l learned one thing, our public education has many silos and too many bureaucratic policies and politics that prohibit teachers from teaching as they attempt to the follow flavor of the year mandated curriculum program and testing thrown at them by the state or federal government.
If Betsy DeVos really wants to make an impact on her new job guiding national public education, one of her first acts should be eliminating regional and national accreditation agencies that accredit institutional and specialized schools.
National accreditation associations focus on certain types of colleges such as trade and technical institutions, or religious colleges such as seminaries and bible colleges.
Regional accreditation agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit degree granting colleges and universities. The accrediting programs are costly and often perpetuate poor practices in schools. Ask any school administrator that’s been through the process.
If she wanted help Michigan, she would be best to use her Michigan influence and wealth to help amend the state constitution so the governor has control and the power to appoint the state superintendent and board of education, like most other state agencies.
Whether it’s Common Core or another national curriculum, this country seriously needs some mutually agreed upon standards to be met for a high school certificate or diploma, from a traditional or technical school. While many advocate education should be a state and local power, we are much too transient a society where students move from one community to another and should be able to be find the same curriculum regardless of location. Employers should understand the diploma has the same meaning and graduation standards should not matter from one region of the country to another. This should not eliminate opportunities for specialized learning, but all students should be able to perform certain basic skills to read, write, do math, and critically think.
I found myself even this week unable to get an administrator to simply pick up the telephone and ask a distressed mother why her 16-year-old taking a college online course couldn’t access his first three weeks of homework. Short answer, it was an IT problem, not mine. In my private sector world, a customer is everyone’s concern and we need to deliver the best possible service to survive. It simply isn’t always that way in education because unlike the private sector business that needs profit to survive, public education is funded by property and state taxes, state and federal funds or private gifts that provide the revenue flow often regardless of success.
Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.