Sunday, January 24, 2021
Jan. 24, 2021

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Local View: Pointed questions for Trump’s education secretary pick


Recently, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked educators in the state to provide feedback regarding President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos.

The U.S. Senate will consider DeVos’ nomination on Tuesday. Murray, who sits on the Senate committee that will review DeVos’ qualifications, also asked us to provide potential questions for the nominee. What follows is an abbreviated version of my response to Sen. Murray:

Our education system is at a crossroads; we have made strides in providing an equitable, quality education to all students — white and brown, urban and rural, rich and poor, English-speaking natives and those new to English. We have more work to do, but the work I see happening in my district and those around the state convince me we are on the right path.

A vibrant and robust economy depends on an effective public education system; high-school dropouts earn less money, pay fewer taxes, depend more on social services, and are incarcerated more frequently. Providing an equitable education to this nation’s 51 million public school students would, in my opinion, be best served by someone with depth of experience in our education system.

DeVos does not have any experience in public schools. She has never attended a public school or university, nor have her children. Nor has she worked in public education or studied educational best practices.

What DeVos has done is support charter and private schools in Detroit, often with large donations to receptive political campaigns. This prompts two crucial questions for DeVos: How will you ensure that there is ample voice within your organization of teachers, principals and superintendents who are actually in our nation’s schools and doing the work? And, how will you collaborate with state educational leaders/superintendents to honor local control with national guidance?

Beware of ‘choice’

While supporters claim “choice” in the form of charter schools improves outcomes, the data simply don’t support this. The Michigan charter schools DeVos has promoted — which are not required to accept every child that requests to be enrolled as public schools do, and which do not have to meet the same academic standards as their public counterparts — have produced worse student academic performance outcomes than the Michigan state average.

Meanwhile, public dollars paid by all taxpayers are being funneled to schools that can pick and choose whom they serve, while truly public schools, serving children of all backgrounds, receive fewer dollars.

It’s logical to assume that DeVos’ focus as national secretary of education will be on expanding the use of public tax dollars to support more charter and private schools nationwide. If successful, this rechanneling of public dollars will adversely affect poorest districts the most. Among them are Washington state’s small, rural schools.

In the Lyle School District, we serve 240 students on a budget of just around $4 million. This is equal to or less than the transportation budgets of most major Washington school districts. Three-quarters of that currently comes from state and federal funding, with one-quarter provided by our local levy. Eighty percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and nearly one-third meet the federal definition of homeless.

The reality is that most students and parents in Lyle, like other small, rural districts, will likely never have access or the means to attend a local charter or private school even if they wish to.

Their only choice is our local public schools, and we owe it to them to provide every opportunity that students in charter schools and in larger urban districts have. Redirecting public taxpayer dollars paid here in Klickitat County and other rural counties to charters and private schools in the Vancouver, Seattle or Spokane metro areas simply is not a recipe for equity.

This leads to my final question for DeVos: How do we provide choice and also ensure an equal outcome for the children in our nation?

Andrew Kelly is superintendent of the Lyle School District in Klickitat County and is a former assistant state superintendent.