IMAGINE IF WE HAD a secretary of education who made a point of visiting some of our country’s underperforming schools to find out about the challenges that the students, their parents, and their teachers face.
Imagine a secretary of education who acknowledged that voucher programs undermine even further these already challenged schools and recognized that navigating a Wild West of private, unaccountable, and sometimes predatory schools isn’t a tenable solution for many families.
Imagine a secretary of education who understood — perhaps because she had visited a school where it is the case — that kids can have a hard time focusing and learning when their school doesn’t have heat, or when the gym floor is so warped that gym class is cancelled and students can’t let off steam.
The problem is not simply that Secretary Betsy DeVos does not appear to understand our public education system — or care to learn. The real problem is that Secretary DeVos does not understand what our nation recognized early in our history: that public education is a necessary foundation for a democracy.
Our public officials — most of all the secretary of education — should appreciate that a strong public education system prepares all of our young people to participate in our nation’s democracy and compete in the workforce. Our nation’s schools are essential in ensuring that every child, no matter his or her circumstances, has the chance to learn, grow, and lead. Public schools connect talent to opportunity.
Rather than sharing a reverence for the importance of public education, DeVos is focused on taking funding away from the public education system and giving it to private, religious, and for-profit schools that lack accountability and too often don’t serve the best interest of students and parents.
Working parents and their children don’t need a byzantine system of unaccountable actors when it comes to education. We also don’t need a system where private entities compete for wealthy kids or those who are the best students at the expense of kids who don’t have these characteristics. Nor do we need schools that will exploit the hopes and fears of vulnerable students, taking their money without delivering.
We need neighborhood schools where well-trained, experienced, and creative educators can develop student-centered education plans, and where progress can be measured and pathways developed so that students and their parents know that each child will have a chance to reach his or her potential. Each year a child loses to an experiment in an untested, unaccountable school is a year that they can’t get back. And by draining resources and scattering them, students whose parents may not have the resources to school shop, or to transport their kids to far-flung schools, are left behind.
We certainly need to do more to support and improve our public schools, but there are also wonderful things happening in these schools around the country. And the simple fact is that 90 percent of our students attend public schools — and we should not abandon them or try to set up an expensive parallel system that is publicly funded but lacks public accountability.
It is long past time that we make the robust investment in public schools that is needed to ensure that everyone in this country can count on their neighborhood school. With additional resources, improved infrastructure, and more professional development opportunities and increased pay for our teachers, our schools will be able to meet more student needs and continue to provide the quality education our children deserve.
We can also take innovative steps to improve our public education system, some of which I was proud to direct as New Hampshire’s governor. New Hampshire has been a national leader in competency-based education through its Performance Assessment for Competency Education model. This testing pilot replaces traditional standardized testing with locally developed assessments that are worked into students’ day-to-day learning. We should continue to identify ways to support this kind of deeper learning around the country.
In addition, there are efforts in the Senate that I support to expand career and technical education for all students. Ensuring that students have access to work-based learning and dual enrollment opportunities in high school will provide students with the skills they need to succeed in whatever career they choose to pursue. These are just a few of the steps that we should take to improve our public school system and ensure that all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Unlike DeVos, I believe that our public schools can best serve our students when we invest in their success instead of making drastic cuts and shifting funds to private, religious, and for-profit schools that only serve a select few.
We can and must do better for our children, and DeVos should join us in that endeavor. Our democracy depends on it.
Maggie Hassan is a US senator from New Hampshire.