Thursday, November 24, 2016

Questions: Drain the swamp? Betsy DeVos? Where do parents come in?


Dear President-Elect Trump,

It's November 24th, and though I run a small farm and am up early every day anyway, I'm up this morning - not readying myself to make Thanksgiving dinner - but writing to you about my frustration over your pick for US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.


As you began considering a USDE appointment, my fellow Common Core fighters across the country and I, Tweeted you - and even publicly published (and signed) a letter to you - with our USDE Secretary picks (which got thousands of signatures in three days) and specific policy changes (signed by leading anti-CC activists in nearly all 50 states) we had hoped you'd address. I thought you might hear us because of our combined years of boots-on-the-ground education policy experience. I also thought you might understand and appreciate the viewpoint of us 'little guys' in the 'middle' - the forgotten people you said you'd champion on the campaign trail. Oh well; I'm no stranger to campaign rhetoric and broken political promises, yet I had hoped for a change (insert eye-roll and sigh). Nevertheless, I'm hoping you read my specific concerns resting on everything I've read about Betsy DeVos in the last several days.

First: education experience counts

DeVos has zero experience in public education outside philanthropy. She apparently was educated in private schools and sent her children to private schools. This is fine. I have no problem with that at all. I might have taken that avenue myself could we have afforded it. I guess I'm confused because I would have thought your business practice would be to either train someone specifically to manage one of your golf properties or to find a manager experienced in golf property management to do so. I didn't think you would simply tap the member with the biggest checkbook who plays a round on the weekends to assume that kind of a job.

My suggestions included Bill Evers, Larry ArnnSandra Stotsky (and also Dr. Everett Piper). These are EDUCATORS who utilize traditional educational METHODS to properly inform and instruct young people at the local level as opposed to non-educators who write and/or create public education POLICY dictating how ALL public educators everywhere in the nation must educate their local student populations.

Second: purchased policy stinks on ice

Don't get me wrong - I'm a Capitalist. There's nothing wrong with rich people (I still hope to be one someday) or philanthropy, but there's EVERYTHING wrong with using money to influence legislation and push policy to which neither the philanthropist nor their kids are subject. This is a huge reason activists objected to the insertion of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, The Gates Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce and Exxon oil (etc.) into ANY conversations on Common Core (or public education for that matter). This kind of education 'advocacy' originates in an echo-chamber bubble, and its resulting lobbied-for policy flows down over the 'little people' from above. I've seen (and written about) the policy influence of the FEE (and others against Common Core) right here in Oklahoma during our Common Core fight (and apparently, education activists in Michigan have witnessed the exact same top-down policy-pushing from the DeVos Foundation first hand). I KNOW how money creates and dictates policy, yet I thought this to be EXACTLY the kind of thing you said you would fight against as president. None of this bodes well for American education moving forward, nor our trust in you to uphold your campaign promises.

Three: "school choice" means nothing as long as the USDE exists and can dictate education policy to the states on any level

Let's face it. The term "school choice" - like the term "education reform" - means something different to everyone, but usually encompasses the idea that a benevolent federal dictatorship should 'allow' parents to move from one education facility to another (charter schools), hopefully dragging along public money (vouchers), in order to provide their children with a better education than that offered by their failing district school.

As long as federal policy imposes control over public education in any way, public money provided to private individuals to use at private or homeschools, will bring the federal zombie policy infestation with it. Read Coulson on vouchers if you think I might be wrong. If that's not enough, internet search "federal control and vouchers". You'll find pages of information on how vouchers will ruin every private route parents have to educate their children without government control. This is a complicated subject dealing with IDEA laws, but just because it's a complicated issue doesn't mean it's not true. Apparently Betsy DeVos has an affinity for school choice - including vouchers.

Vouchers are only part of the problem. Part of the reason we fought so hard against Common Core was the seepage of its tentacles into every nook and cranny of the education world - including source materials. There is no such thing as "school choice" - including those using traditional education methods such as homeschool - when federal policy is allowed to dictate state education function.

Four: charter schools only work if they're made to work

My mother (a now-retired, 33-year public school English teacher) and I taught on the same 7th grade team at the first charter school in Oklahoma (Independence Charter Middle School). After spending nearly 30 years watching traditional public schools continually lower the bar for educational attainment (she was what used to be called a 'gifted and talented' teacher), my mother practically begged for a job at this school. Here, we were promised that: kids who negatively influenced the education of other students would be dismissed, kids who refused to participate in their studies would be dismissed, dismissal would also befall students of parents who did not complete their requisite parent hours. Our kids were not cherry-picked, they were allowed entry via lottery. The first year, we followed our charter. Our scores were great, the student population and atmosphere was great, and my mom and I loved working there. Each year following, when we applied to have kids dismissed, we were given the run-around and eventually ignored. The student population and atmosphere suffered, and by the time we left four years later, it felt like the inmates were once again running the asylum. Why? Because state aid was dispatched by the "butt-in-seat" formula. Though we had a waiting list, it was harder to get kids in at breaks and the school wanted the maximum amount of funding possible from the state. Again, money 'TRUMPS' education.

PS: for those who see charter schools as privatization of education I would say three things:
1. It all depends upon the charter. If the Board is a mixed board of school parents and taxpaying citizens within the district, accountability to the taxpayer is met. If you don't like the way the school runs, contact your at-large board members, don't whine that the school has been privatized - it hasn't.
2. It all depends upon the leadership. My mother has mentored elementary kids at Stanley Hupfeld Academy in one of the lowest income districts in suburban Oklahoma City. They have been committed to extensive outside input and mentoring programs and have kept a C average for a school population which would have been otherwise forgotten in a traditional sense. Again, if you don't like the leadership of the school, get involved - don't complain.
3. Some charter schools stink and some are great - just like all other public schools. There are Charter School accountability agencies within (and without) state education agencies. If there is a concern with how charters are being run in your state - or anything else about them - you as a citizen, have a right and responsibility to attack that problem at the state level. Petition for closure, for example, but, again, do not just complain they are being privatized - that's a red herring argument.

Five: contradictions catch up with people - even rich, GOP-connected, donor ones

Betsy DeVos as quoted in the Detroit news:
"The status quo in education is not acceptable," DeVos said. "Together, we can work to make transformational change that ensures every student in America has the opportunity to fulfill his or her highest potential."
NO. Just no. We've already been through 8 years of "transformational change" in every facet of American life including public education and we don't need any more of that crap. That was why you were elected. That was your edict from the people. In addition, I don't want ANYONE to ensure every student in America ANYTHING. I want a USED Secretary to hand off responsibility over education to the states (and parents) where it belongs. Period. This is EXACTLY the kind of stuff we asked you NOT to allow, and yet, here is DeVos, 'ensuring' me of 'opportunities' for my children - whom she doesn't know - which indicates to me that she'll continue the quest to collect individual level (granular) data on students which the USDE has no business collecting in any way shape or form in order to make sure she can benevolently 'give' my kids what they need to fulfill their 'highest potential' - which is MY job.

In addition DeVos says:
"I do support high standards, strong accountability, and local control. When Governors such as John Engler, Mike Huckabee, and Mike Pence were driving the conversation on voluntary high standards driven by local voices, it all made sense."
WHAT? Did she proof that before she put that up on the internet?

The first sentence contains the insidious, using-buzzwords-to-make-sure-I-get-everyone-from-every-ed-camp-into-mine, rhetorical nonsense. You simply can't have "high standards" and "strong accountability" at the federal level and get LOCAL CONTROL. You just can't. That sentence alone should be deadly in the confirmation hearings for Mrs. DeVos. Local control of education is Constitutional. Clearly, she has no concept that this old, moldy document contains no provision for federal control of education in any way. This is eminently troubling in itself, but the contradictions in just this one sentence are ridiculous to any parent who has spent any time at all researching policies involving how the state seeks to educate their children and the mechanisms that remove parental control for that responsibility.


Then we have her invocation of the names Huckabee and Pence whose forays into 'education reform' have resulted in serious national revolt.

Look at Indiana. Hoosiers Against Common Core wasn't started by mothers Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin because they didn't have anything better to do in a day! In fact, their activities to stop Common Core in their state led to a re-brand of the standards by Governor Pence that backed up internet traffic for days while anti-CC groups excoriated him in the public square (search the words "Pence rebrand" to alleviate any doubt here).

Look at Oklahoma. ROPE penned a public letter to Mike Huckabee after he sent a personal letter to legislators saying in part;
These standards, known as Common Core State Standards, have been near and dear to my heart since I served as Governor of your neighboring state of Arkansas.
WHAT? Does DeVos do no research? Clearly no. Clearly another reason she shouldn't be USED Secretary - and another point I intend to bring up to my Senators, Jim Inhofe and James Lankford when it comes to her Senate confirmation.

Common Core were never really voluntary standards because as you and DeVos both know, MONEY BUYS ANYTHING everywhere - including this country. Once the USED started doling out dollars for 'education reform' in the guise of 'college and career ready standards', it became a free-for-all that every state wanted a piece of (especially thanks to the National Governor's Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers), making it a national endeavor without the icing on the cake reading "national standards".

In closing

I could go on - and if you knew me at all, you'd know how fortunate you are I stopped here - but I won't. I have a turkey to prepare (all the while fearing another turkey I can't cook in a position to once again 'transform' public education through dictation of policy) and family whose company I enjoy with whom to share the Thanksgiving holiday.

It would have been nice for you to have remembered the 'forgotten middle' in your appointment of DeVos, but I choose to believe that after reading the volumes of material which will certainly burst forth into the public square from the grassroots upon her selection, you will reconsider. If not, I choose to hope (without any real precedent at all to go on) that the United State Senate will hear our pleas and refuse her appointment.

Happy Thanksgiving Holiday, President-Elect Trump. 

Sincerely,
Jenni White
Education Director
Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment (ROPE)


About me:

I'm a Constitutional Conservative Christian, lifetime Oklahoma resident. My mother is a retired 33-year public school English teacher. My father is - at 80+ - still a professor of journalism at the University of Oklahoma. I was a successful Teaching Assistant while finishing my Master's degree in Biology, after which I taught high school science and finally retired to become a stay-at-home-mom after teaching 7th grade science on the same team with my mother at the first charter school in Oklahoma - Independence Charter Middle School. I have four children (33, 15, 14 & 11) the latter three of whom have been schooled at home since 4th, 3rd and 1st grades, respectively.

Though I've voted in every election possible since I was 18 years old (for Reagan by the way) I had never been active in the Republican party or visited my state Capitol to speak with legislators in my life before 2008. That year, I helped organize, and became the Education Director for, the OKC912Project. After two years there, and seeing the mess public education was becoming, I co-founded an organization called Restore Oklahoma Public Education (now Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment). In 2014 after four solid years of writingspeaking, researching, and lobbying (thanks to the philanthropy of our husbands), ROPE helped repeal Common Core from law in Oklahoma.