Public Education Was Dying Long Before Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation: Where Was Your Outrage Then?

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Betsy DeVos has been confirmed and sworn in as the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education and the blowback in the public education community and among many leaders elected and appointed across the nation and here at home in New Orleans is deafening.

The criticisms are real. DeVos is an enemy of public education, with her staunch support of the so-called “school choice” brand of education reform, which has included the proliferation of voucher programs and poor-performing charter schools in Michigan. She was the head of the American Federation of Children—an organization that has pushed the privatization of public education under the guise of code words like “school choice”. And she is a big-time contributor to political candidates, especially Republicans—a fact which arguably secured her appointment to the nation’s top public education department. It can’t be easy to vote against the confirmation of someone who has lined your campaign coffers.

How is it that someone so clearly against public education now leads the U.S. Department of Education?

How is it that someone with zero . . . nada . . . zilch experience as a teacher, principal, public education administrator or even as a public school parent is now entrusted with ensuring that the nation’s poor and middle-class children—especially—are provided with the quality education opportunities that are still greatest equalizer and pathway to opportunity in this country?

Betsy DeVos is just par for the course. From John White and Paul Pastorek under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the state of Louisiana to Arne Duncan and now Besty DeVos at the federal level, having top leadership leading departments of education is not new, especially with the big-money, corporate driven reform movement.
Well, let us tell you how this all went down. You see, the sky didn’t fall on Feb. 7. This train has been running off the tracks for decades now, in fact. We saw this train coming full steam ahead right here in New Orleans when the state legislature used the slight of pen to declare almost all of the schools in Orleans Parish as “failing” to make way for a takeover and ultimately the chartering/privatization of public schools in the city in the wake Katrina.

And to those elected and appointed leaders, especially who watched silently or played an active role in the demise and dismantling of public education here in New Orleans now acting all sore and confused over Betsy DeVos, we have to ask: Where were you when it was happening here?

Actually, what we really want to say is “Shut Up! You knew this was going to happen. Your own complicity or acquiescence right here in our local and statewide matters helped to make it so. You, who held up the so-called “New Orleans” model as some sensational marvel when it was really a mockery, you did this.”

Exhale. That felt great.

But really, you had to have seen a Betsy DeVos coming. You opened the door for her grand entrance. You saw it coming. Hell, we saw it coming. We saw it coming when the state legislature, the state board of elementary and secondary education and the state department of education aligned themselves to orchestrate the pilfering of public education here in New Orleans no matter the cost. We saw it coming every time the narrative got a little muddier.

So, now we’re supposed to be all alarmed because DeVos has no experience as an educator? So what she is essentially a rich lobbyist who has wielded her power and money—truckloads of it—to direct and influence so-called education reform efforts steeped in charters, vouchers and other programs that siphon resources from real public education?

How is that any different than what we have had to endure for the past 12 years?

To be sure, we offer our very best side-eye glance to anyone we hear babbling on about how unqualified for the post Betsy DeVos is or how public education will be ruined under her watch. Come on now. Let’s get real once and for all. Betsy DeVos is merely the latest in a litany of unqualified people tapped to lead education departments at all levels of government. She may be the latest, most prominent face in the demise of public education. But she sho’ ain’t the first. In fact, we have some of the best examples right here.

Need we remind you that Paul Pastorek, an attorney by training whose only experience in education was a political appointment by former Gov. Murphy “Mike” Foster to the state board of education, was about as qualified to lead the Louisiana Department of Education when he was selected by Gov. Blanco and approved by BESE with the support of then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu for that job and oversaw the growth of charter schools across the state as DeVos is to lead the federal education department. To be clear, Pastorek’s time on BESE came through political appointment. He was a friend of Foster—a political crony. That’s it. He was never and still is not an educator of any ilk. To think that his appointment to BESE somehow qualified him to lead the state department of education is absurd. Paul Pastorek once also served as general counsel to NASA; yet, no one in their right mind would dare appoint him to lead the nation’s space program. His time on BESE made him the right person to lead the Louisiana Department of Education about as much as his time as an attorney for NASA made him astronaut. Yet he was still the state superintendent of education from 2007 to 2011. He is the guy that shaped and guided the policies—sometimes making them up as he went along never mind what the law governing school takeover actually said. Paul Pastorek singlehandedly defined the reform movement in Louisiana. And he wasn’t qualified for the job.

His successor John White’s only classroom experience was as a Teach for America recruit before he landed in the administrative offices of TFA and later served as deputy chancellor of education in New York under Michael Bloomberg and later superintendent of the Recovery School District, a job he assumed after Paul Vallas, who came out of the same Chicago education reform machine that gave us Arne Duncan. (We will talk about that later).

White’s degrees are in English and public administration. He has no background in pedagogy, instruction or teaching other than the roughly six-week long boot camp that TFA puts its recruits through before placing them in classrooms across the nation in front of our children. We wouldn’t and don’t accept such a short-cut training program in other professions. Ever heard of six-week boot camp that churns out doctors, lawyers, dentists or airplane pilots? There are academic and clinical training requirements to become a licensed massage therapist, but a six-week institute is sufficient for folk entrusted with educating our children. Let’s get real again. A TFA recruit is about as qualified to lead the state department of education as a substitute teacher.

We take that back. There are some subs who are actually retired, veteran educators. They are more qualified than John White, Betsy DeVos and Paul Pastorek put together.

Okay, we know we are going to step on a few toes when we go here, but we have to. In his selection of DeVos as education secretary, Trump did not stray very far from the same playbook used by Pres. Barack Obama in his nomination of Arne Duncan for the same post. Duncan, who was Paul Vallas’ successor in Chicago, like Vallas, was focused on so-called and misdirected reform efforts, not on improving public education. Duncan was never a teacher. He was never an education administrator. And under Pres. Obama and Arne Duncan, the national education policy leaned toward more charters, more vouchers, and more high-stakes testing.

Yes, public education is in deep peril with the appointment of DeVos—so much so that barely a day after her confirmation, U.S. Rep. Tom Massie, a Kentucky Republican, authored a bill to abolish the department she now leads.

But anything that can happen to public education on a national level will simply be the icing on the cake that is the dismantling of public education that we have personally watched take place here in New Orleans.

Betsy DeVos doesn’t scare us or worry us—at least not any more than the elected and appointed officials right here in our own backyard that long ago sold us and local public school students out in the name of so-called reform to secure their own futures at the risk of our children’s.

Betsy DeVos can’t be any worse than state legislators who change laws raising school performance scores to facilitate a takeover of public education and then change those same laws again to lower school performance scores to mask the failure of the reform. She can’t be any worse than state superintendents that write policies to create convoluted guidelines to govern the return of schools to the local school board. She can’t be any worse than BESE members that rubber stamp those policies.

Betsy DeVos can’t be any worse than trusted leaders who accept grant money and even jobs for themselves or family members in exchange for the complicity in the corporate-driven reform movement here in New Orleans and Louisiana—our children be damned.

Betsy DeVos can’t be any worse than some elements of local mainstream media that have failed repeatedly to provide an accurate picture of the failure of this so-called reform. When our analysis of the data has shown that the vast majority of the schools taken over by the state and subsequently chartered are performing as poorly—if not worse than before, some in mainstream media continue to repeat the false narrative of a miraculous turnaround. We have long encountered alternative facts . . . way before Sean Spicer.

If Rep. Massie’s bill passes, the U.S. Department of Education will cease to exist on December 31, 2018.

We can’t be scared of that. We have seen that before. Without talking to parents, teachers are students, the handful of direct-run, traditional public schools under the Orleans Parish School Board have been allowed to charter. And this move comes after the legislative sham designed to make it look as if schools taken over by the state would actually return to local control.

Truth is we will need a U.S. Department of Education about as much as we need an Orleans Parish School System. Quite frankly, dismantling the U.S. Department of Education in December 2018 will be the right thing to do as we have no doubt that after about 23 months of DeVos’ leadership, public schools in America will cease to exist.

Then, the rest of the nation will look like New Orleans.

So, yes, the folk acting as if Betsy DeVos is the devil can miss us with their disdain for this woman and their fake concern for public education.

Of course, we mourn for public education and the children that have been, are being and will be hurt by the privatization of our public schools. And, no, we didn’t celebrate Betsy Devos’ confirmation. We just saw it coming. And so did you.

Folks have been chipping away at the clouds of public education for decades now. Nearly twelve years ago, what happened to public education in New Orleans can only be describe as the blue firmament being ripped from the heavens and tossed into Katrina’s flood waters. No, the sky didn’t just fall on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. And we won’t pretend as if it did.

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