Have you heard the new one? It goes like this:
“The Secretary who?”
“Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.”
“Go away.” (Sound of Door Slamming.)
Something like this joke actually occurred according to this CBS report of February 10th and this story out of San Diego in the Washington Post. In DC, protestors blocked DeVos’s way as she attempted to enter a DC public school to learn about public schools. (Which seems to be the very thing that her most ardent critics say that she needs to understand.) Thankfully, the Secretary did eventually get into the school, but according to the story and the reaction to my last post on DeVos, there is a sizable portion of the public that agrees with the protesters—that schools should refuse admittance to the Secretary of Education. In San Diego, the school board rescinded an invitation asking DeVos to visit. I wanted to examine this reaction briefly and counsel a way forward.
I have to admit that I understand some of what seems to be motivating the protestors. They feel like they have been given a raw deal. (They have.) The public schools in DC (and in many other places) are struggling and people’s children are being harmed. When parents think that their children are being harmed, they get angry (and they should). They see Secretary DeVos as an example of the kind of privilege and wealth that has passed by their communities and schools. They worry that she will make a bad situation worse by diminishing the resources that they have. I believe that is where the rage comes from and it is an understandable reaction.
There are three problems that I see with this reaction: a factual problem, a tactical problem, and chronological and fiscal problem. Let’s look at each one briefly.
The Factual Problem
The factual problem is that the harm people believe DeVos will do to their schools is not based on her intentions, and her actions prove this. She does not want to harm schools in the inner city. Her donations to private schools are not made only to elite, exclusive schools. Some of the money goes to schools who are doing exceptional work serving the neediest students in the inner cities. I know the leaders of these schools and I know the sacrifices that they are making to give students in their community hope and a future. They are ridiculously innovative, faithful, and hyper-committed to the success of their students. DeVos funds are making this possible. So if Jesus’s adage about your treasure and your heart being located in the same vicinity are true (and they are), then DeVos does not intend to harm inner city students. She has committed sizable personal funds to help them. That’s factual.
She might implement things that will harm things in the long run. As I said in the last post on DeVos, the expansion of charter schools (which is another area where DeVos’s money and heart have gone) is a non-starter because if retains the problems that public schools are facing while missing the advantages that private schools have. Charter school expansion will, in the long run, fail and DeVos might put charter school expansion forth as a real alternative. DeVos has also advocated for vouchers. This might help some people, but I oppose it because these funds will destroy the private education system in our country by compromising its independence.
So the facts as I see them are: DeVos intends to help, has invested in helping students in many parts of our culture, but could harm education with some of her ideas. This is a reason to be wary, but we should wait, and see, and hope.
The Tactical Problem
My second concern with protestors trying to bar DeVos from entering a school or having a school board rescind their invitation to have her visit is that it is wrongheaded tactically. I am a Christian and I am a conservative. I have been so for all of my life. The groups that I am a part of have, at points, called for boycotts or slammed doors in people’s faces. Friends, these tactics just don’t work. They make you look shrill, angry, irrational, and uncool (Please note, I have been there and done that.). There are times to be all of these things, but it would be much more effective tactically to give her a chance, to invite her to come, and to talk with her about your problems. Talking with her would be wise even if you think that she is completely wrong.
Thankfully, not all have reacted like the protestors or the San Diego School Board. Many from former Education Secretary Arne Duncan (quoted in the CBS article) to local public school educators (some in my own family) have counseled another, better direction. They are worried and skeptical about Secretary DeVos, but they want to welcome her to come and see what is really going on. I don’t agree with them about everything, but the tactic they recommend (“Come and see”) will be much more effective than the tactic of locking Secretary DeVos out.
The Chronological and Fiscal Problem
The biggest problem that I see with protest and the slammed doors are that they fail to recognize the source of the problems. DeVos did not cause the educational problems that we are facing. She has not been in office a month. The problems are real and she could, as I have said, increase them. She will be judged by her performance. This judgment eventually and rightly will come not from private educators, nor from the teachers unions, but from the families of our country. It will be based on the answer to this question: “Are the schools that serve my child/grandchildren better or worse?” We all hope that the answer is better.
Finally, let me explain why I am devoting more time to this issue: at the present we have an opportunity to actually have a meaningful discussion about the problems facing education. The DeVos nomination has been a catalyst (sometimes a combustive one) to the discussion. It is a discussion that must happen. The fiscal problems of our public schools can’t be answered by repeating the status quo. They must not be answered by shutting down the discussion or by demanding that only one alternative be considered. We have to find a solution. Our children and our future hang in the balance. It has to be a solution that fixes the obvious problems that we are facing today in a disintegrating culture, and it has to cost about half of what we are spending now. Real and substantive change needs to come. It has to come. That means that the change needed is going to impact the funding of education in America today. We must not avoid it. We must not look aside. We have to stare this fact in the face. That is what adults have to do. It would be good if we could at least start moving toward finding answers by opening doors instead of closing them.