My letter to DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

Congratulations on your recent confirmation as secretary of education! I understand it has been a difficult and contentious process, but your successful appointment now places the tremendous honor and responsibility of leading our nation’s schools squarely on your shoulders.

As a school superintendent, I wanted to provide you with some unsolicited feedback and advice as you embark on this important work. I’m certain you have surrounded yourself with very capable people who can support your transition into public service. However, I thought I might share my views with you as I have found the perspectives of those closest to the work to be an invaluable resource in helping me make good decisions on behalf of kids and families.

The federal government’s role in education was intentionally omitted from the Constitution by the founding fathers. This was not because they considered education unimportant — far from it. From their writings, we can clearly infer that they believed there should be a system of public schools (paid for and governed by the states and each community) for the purpose of creating an educated citizenry, capable of engaging in self-governance in our democratic republic.

However, since the 1960s, we have seen an expansion in the role of the federal government in education, beginning with President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Since that time, the federal government has taken on an important role in ensuring students of color, students in poverty and students with disabilities have equitable access to education.
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While no one that I know wishes for an expansion of the federal role in education, it should also be noted that without federal involvement, segregationist and exclusionary practices might still be common in our country, relegating many children to a “separate, but inherently unequal” education.

During your confirmation hearings, many were troubled by your answers to questions about how you would enforce federal law relating to protections for these vulnerable children. Having been the subject of state level confirmation hearings myself (by a then Democratically controlled Iowa Senate, when I was nominated to be the state’s education chief by a Republican governor), I sympathized with the pressure and scrutiny you must have felt.

I hope we can agree that no child in the United States should be prohibited access to a quality education based on race, economic status or condition. It was not clear from the responses during your confirmation hearings that you understood or intended to uphold the important role the federal government has in protecting and safeguarding services and access for these children. Going forward, the responsibility and moral obligation for protecting these students falls on your shoulders, and you must safeguard their futures.

It is also clear that you and President Trump intend to make privatization and school choice signature policy elements for this administration. I am certain you are aware the evidence to support this path as an effective mechanism for system-wide improvement is murky (at best), but there can be no doubt as to your commitment and beliefs in them, nonetheless.

Let us focus on where we agree — there is absolutely an important place in our nation’s education landscape for private school options and school choice, inclusive of charter schools.

The writing is on the wall that privatization and school choice options are only going to expand in the years to come. This may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a dramatic expansion of learning options and opportunities for our children. We should embrace the expansion of all opportunities for learning.

However, as we bravely enter this new era, we must also consider core ideals such as quality, fairness, equity and access — and we must design an education system that safeguards these ideals.

If we are to expand school choice options with public funds, then let us also make sure the playing field is really level and fair. Any institution (public, charter, or private) or other learning opportunity should welcome and be obligated to serve every child in our community, just as our current public schools do.

Cherry-picking enrollment policies, where schools choose the right “fit” for who can enroll and “counsel out” or even outright remove students or families that are too much trouble, should not be acceptable. These other school options will also need to provide services to create access for all families (such as transportation supports, mental health, nutrition, language development and disability services). It should also mean an end to practices where admission is based on the ability to pay tuition, donations or any other fees.

These other school choice options should also be subject to the same testing, regulations and accountability systems under which our current publicly funded schools operate. If the extensive battery of testing we give to public school students and the ranking of schools (and even teachers) based on these test scores is good for public schools, then that same system should be good for all other kinds of school options.

In short, where public funds go, access for every child and accountability for results must follow.

So, let’s compete! But let’s also commit to an equal and fair playing field.

In closing, I did notice that some protesters in the D.C. area blocked your entry during a public school visit. While I disagree with this, I do understand the sentiment — you’ve said some very derogatory and damning things about public schools with little personal experience to back up those opinions. Going forward, I hope you will continue to visit schools of all kinds and grow to respect and revere the important and noble work happening within them. Toward that end, I wish to extend an invitation for you to visit any of our schools in Eagle County and I look forward to sharing with you the incredible things happening for kids in our community.