I recently had the honor of meeting U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos when I was a guest at the White House ceremony celebrating the 2017 state teachers of the year, which included my wife, the honoree from Maryland, Athanasia Kyriakakos.
The meeting was unplanned and brief, but for me, as a public high school special educator, it was a big deal. Many of my colleagues and friends questioned why I even cared. They knew of my vehement stance that DeVos’ advocacy for increased school choice is a deeply flawed, non-solution for increasing equity in public education.
Yet, my respect for her position remains. We also have much in common, despite our differences. Ultimately, we both want to shape our educational system to be the best for all of our children. And — perhaps most importantly — we are both from Michigan.
Secretary DeVos’ mantra that only school choice can save American public education has for a long time served as code for the promotion of a free-market agenda in the area where states often spend their greatest amount of public dollars. These experiments in education innovation — charter schools, vouchers and online education — have been going on for so long that a large body of empirical research has been conducted on their qualitative results. For charter schools these results are mixed with at best only a slight improvement seen nationally. Voucher programs show no net academic gains, and the results for online schools are even worse.
I understand why Secretary DeVos sees her support of school choice as an extension of her philanthropy and belief that unregulated, idealistic entities are somehow the best way to help those in need. The ruggedness and beauty of our home state have for generations attracted those with an adventurous spirit, an entrepreneurial mind and the desire to escape or start anew. It may have been because of this openness that the Dutch Calvinist church to which DeVos belongs found a home in Western Michigan, or why my family came to the same area after they were forced to leave the Mennonites when one progenitor chose to fight in the Civil War.
Alexis De Tocqueville famously recounted the fortitude, religious tolerance and intellect of the early Michigan settlers. Other great writers, such as Jim Harrison, found inspiration in this physical and intellectual wilderness. Even more notably, Earnest Hemingway’s understanding of the world and sparse writing style were tested and honed during his early years in Northern Michigan. It is easy to see (as I believe DeVos does) how the ability of man to conquer his environment could lead to a worldview that embraces isolation and a distrust of government while celebrating the wisdom of family and church along with the ingenuity and fortitude of the early American pioneers. Yet, it is also possible to learn a different, more sublime lesson from Michigan’s grand tableau of destruction and birth, a lesson that evokes compassion, service and stewardship.
Did DeVos not stand on the same sandy beaches as I and watch the fiery sunsets? Was she not humbled in the still night, so cold that her eyelashes froze, when only her clothing and a small pocket of warmth from her own breath kept the abyss at bay, all while standing on a frozen lake with the Aurora Borealis dancing overhead? Wasn’t there a moment when the roar of her daily thoughts was replaced with a glimpse of our integral coexistence on this fragile planet?
Jim Harrison wrote, “It’s very difficult to look at the World and into your heart at the same time. In between, a life has passed.” Yet, in our current era of urgency, we must find ways to do both. It is essential that we look to solutions that are supported from many sides. In the case of school choice, the state of Maryland offers an excellent example. Charter schools in Maryland are all part of their local school systems, with oversight from the central offices and participation by employees in collective bargaining units. This is a structure very different from the free-market systems supported by DeVos, the merits of which have been shown when, in recent years, Baltimore City’s charter schools have been rated in or near the top 10 in the country by the Brookings Institute.
I hope that the next time I meet with Secretary DeVos we will discuss additional ways that we can increase student equity and achievement. Ideally this meeting would take place at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Instead, we will most likely have to find our common ground in Washington, D.C.
Morgan Showalter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a high school special education teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools. He is also the appointee of the Baltimore Teachers Union on the Maryland Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Education. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.