Curto: The importance of public schools and the danger of DeVos

    When my high school football team would play against private schools, which tended to have more competitive teams, those of us in the student section would get to break out an extra special chant. “Public schooling!” clap, clap, clap clap clap. You probably know how it sounds – just replace the words with “Let’s go Wildcats!

    While this was a crowd-favorite cheer (partially egged on by the looks we got from our associate principal at games), it also proved something – for the most part, we were proud of our public school. Yeah, some of our friends had parted ways after middle school to go to a ~private~ high school, and yeah, we knew the private schools had more money and better facilities. But we also knew that we were still getting one of the best educations in the area, without a doubt.

    Before my family moved to Kansas, I went to a private school, because my parents thought it was the only good option in the area. I remember one of the biggest changes from moving was that I would be going to a public school – part of a school district and everything! – after my parents heard that Johnson County, Kansas, has some of the best public schools in the country.

    It wasn’t untill high school that I realized how privileged I was to have such a great public education experience, and I began caring more about public education as a policy issue. And now, more than ever, I’m worried about our public education system since Betsy DeVos, our new secretary of education, has zero experience with public education. In fact, she’s built her political “career” – if you can qualify her family’s donations of around $200 million to the Republican Party a career – by advocating for charter schools and school choice in Michigan.

    Not to mention, DeVos failed to impress during her Senate hearing – she couldn’t answer simple questions about students with disabilities (from Sen. Maggie Hassan no less, whose son has cerebral palsy and attended public school) or proficiency versus growth. For me, the worst moment by far was her tone-deaf answer about grizzly bear defense when Sen. Chris Murphy asked about Trump’s plans to lift gun-free zones at and around schools. Murphy represents Connecticut, which experienced the largest mass shooting at an American elementary or secondary school ever, 2012’s Sandy Hook Massacre.

    And now, she’s the first cabinet nominee to pass a Senate confirmation hearing by a tie-breaking vice presidential vote. This because of two Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who voted with their conscious and against DeVos.

    But you already know this stuff. You don’t need me to be a political attack ad.

    What you might not know is that Kansas is going through an immense school funding crisis, and has been since I’ve been in high school. Long story short, Gov. Sam Brownback – a Republican who at one point polled lower than President Obama in my red home state – began cutting and redistributing public school funding to account for money lost to extreme tax cuts. While this hurt teachers and schools (and still does), it also brought communities together to support some of the institutions they hold so close – their neighborhood schools.

    That’s why it baffles me that Sen. Jerry Moran, from Kansas, decided to vote to confirm DeVos even though he had initial misgivings about her nomination. That Moran, who’s seen firsthand what happens when a government doesn’t support its public school system, would spite his constituents who are working so hard to keep Kansas’ schools great.

    Kansas’ cuts to public education worry me, but they can be overcome. What worries me about DeVos’ confirmation is her defeatist attitude toward public education – her embrace of the argument that we need alternatives to a flawed public school system.

    It’s easy to ignore the host of issues public education faces, the least of which include resource inequality, curriculums controlled by non-educators and accommodating struggling students. But at the heart of it all is a system that asserts a right to education for everyone and embraces the fact that our country is better when filled with critical and creative thinkers. If DeVos has her way, we’ll leave this behind for a system in which education is for profit and doesn’t serve everyone equally.

    It took acceptance into Northwestern, my dream school, for me to fully realize the impact public education has had on my life. Now, although I’m out of the public school system, I still care because I think children like my brother deserve a great education as well. It’s why I voted a former elementary school teacher, Shelee Brim, into office last fall as my representative in the Kansas House. It’s why I’m still registered to vote in Kansas, so I can help choose the school board that will make decisions about my younger brother’s education. It’s why I called and emailed Sen. Jerry Moran for the first time in my life, expressing my disappointment in his plans to vote for DeVos’ confirmation. And it’s why I’m ready to do whatever I can to support public education, during a time when my country joins my state in ignoring the impact public schools can have.


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