By Caleb Weinstock
Betsy DeVos was named the new U.S. Secretary of Education on Feb. 7 with a plan to shift the decision-making process for school systems from the national level to the states.
“We must revolutionize our education delivery system in America,” Devos said in a speech at an education conference in Austin, Texas. “That’s it, that’s all I’m asking for. Open education up; allow for choice, innovation and freedom.”
DeVos’s confirmation made headlines as one of the toughest of President Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees. Vice President Mike Pence was called on to cast a vote for a cabinet nominee for the first time due to a tie in the Senate. DeVos’s long confirmation process placed her education reform plan directly in the spotlight.
DeVos has said her mission is to get children the best education possible, no matter where they live. She said the best route for this mission is through the addition of charter schools and voucher programs offering more school choice.
“As a result of (Devos’s) work with organizations dedicated to education reform, countless children throughout America are now able to access a higher quality education,” Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance For Public Charter Schools, said in a letter to congressmen in support of DeVos.
The voucher program is a system that gives each student’s family voucher money to attend schools of their choice outside their zoned public schools. Some Grady parents believe this voucher system could be a savior to students who are stuck in deficient schools.
“It’s a fantastic idea for families that don’t have choices and are trapped at a failing school,” Cole Cowden, a parent of two Grady students, said. “I can’t imagine being a parent and only having the choice to send my children to a failing school, knowing that my child’s chances to advance in life are much lower just because they didn’t have the opportunity for a good education.”
There are also many concerns about DeVos’s proposed system. Public Education Matters Georgia (PEMG), an advocacy group comprised of Grady parents who have a long history in lobbying for public education, is leading a debate saying the voucher system lacks practicality.
“What actually happens is we don’t have enough money to give enough to each student, so most students won’t be able to go to an expensive private school,” PEMG leader Carolyn Wood said. “Our concern is that DeVos would lead the Federal Education Department to take the federal funding like Title I dollars and shift them to a voucher program.”
The Department of Education says that Title I’s purpose is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.” Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has 92 schools in its system that receive federal funding from the Title I program, which the Department of Education funds nationally with $15.4 billion. The defunding of Title I and other federal programs like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which help schools across the country, would have many detrimental effects on those schools.
“It is not yet clear whether President Trump or Secretary DeVos believe the federal government has any responsibility to American schools or students,” Erica Long, a policy and governance specialist at APS, said.
Grady students like Grace Schneider, who recently transferred from Pace Academy, believe Grady and other public schools have the same or more capability than private schools to prepare their students.
“Grady has been a really positive experience for me,” Schneider said. “While private schools definitely have some of their own benefits, in my experience, you learn just as much and you experience a more real world situation.”
Other questions of DeVos are raised as to whether or not the voucher program props up religious private schools, as people leaving from public schools could use their voucher funding to pay for a certain religious school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 76 percent of private schools have a religious affiliation.
Americans United, an advocacy group for the separation of church and state, says on its website that “there is no way to prevent publicly funded vouchers from paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.”
DeVos also stirred up controversy when she said that if President Trump were to fulfill a campaign promise to end federal gun-free zones, she would support it. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act bans the possession of a firearm in a school zone. In a statement during her confirmation hearing, Devos said that she believes school gun policy “is best left to locales and states to decide.”
With the possibility of Grady losing its Gun-Free Zone title, some Grady teachers voiced their concerns.
“The potential dangers outweigh the extremely small chances of a teacher making a situation safer by having a gun,” Latin teacher Amy Leonard said. “Just having guns around would really hurt the learning environment.”
However, as she draws many protesters, Devos is hopeful as she commits to work for a new type of education system in America.
“I am very excited to get to work and to talk about my thoughts and ideas on making American education great again,” DeVos said in a statement. “I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world.”