Dear Ms. DeVos:
I read with great interest news articles and reports about your visit to Florida this week, where you stopped by three schools and praised their innovation and dedication to individual students’ needs.
I noticed you visited:
• Holy Comforter, a private religious school with 550 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
• Florida High, a charter school with 1,700 students in kindergarten through 12th grade that has been consistently ranked as one of the top charter schools in the state.
• Bethel Academy, a private religious school with fewer than 100 students in pre-K to sixth grade that is serving low-income families as part of the state’s voucher program.
This leads me ask you, the U.S. Secretary of Education, the following question: Why didn’t you visit any traditional public schools over the course of your two-day visit?
I have nothing against the campuses you toured.
In fact, I am sure you are correct: By the looks of them, they do offer a rigorous and exciting academic experience for those families who are able to access them and feel that they are a good fit for their children.
But here’s the problem: By eschewing any traditional public schools during your Florida visit, Ms. DeVos, you are sending the message that you don’t really care about a system that educates about 90 percent of the nation’s children.
That’s troubling to me, because my children are part of that 90 percent. And I was part of that 90 percent too.
And as you might imagine, my children’s education is extremely important to me.
I understand that you and President Trump are committed to your education budget, and that your stated goal is to turn our country’s way of thinking around by focusing more on the individual student and less on the system. During your Florida trip, you said:
“I think we need to recognize the fact that far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different.”
We can quibble over whether a budget that cuts $9.2 billion overall from education will accomplish your desire for increased innovation at another time.
But for now, can’t we both agree that it would behoove you to spend as much time touring public schools as you do charters and private campuses?
Maybe you aren’t sure where to start or which schools to visit.
Let me help you with that.
For your first stop, I recommend the Rogers Ranch School, a STEM campus in Laveen, Arizona. It’s student body is compromised almost entirely of minorities, and nearly three-quarters of its students are on the free and reduced lunch program.
But here’s the thing: The principal at Rogers Ranch was recently honored with the prestigious Milken Educator Award.
In the four years that Tim Thomas has been at the K-8 campus, student achievement and teacher retention have trended upward.
The school improved to a B-rated school in 2014 — the last year letter grades were given by the state — just one year after receiving a D grade, according to my colleague, education reporter Ricardo Cano.
And, of course, I would also love to have you come visit my children’s campus.
It’s called Cheyenne Traditional School, and it’s a K-8 program that educates nearly 1,000 children.
It’s also a public school, funded with (not a lot) of public education dollars. But I think it’s pretty amazing, and so do most of the parents with whom I interact.
You should know a few things about Cheyenne before you come:
- It’s a school of choice. I know that’s appealing to you. It was to us too! In fact, my husband and I don’t even live in the district. We drive our kids over there every day because we feel it best meets our kids’ educational needs.
- It’s a traditional school that emphasizes back-to-basics and linear learning. If students are falling behind in their class, it is expected that they (and their parents) will do whatever it takes to catch them up, find a tutor, etc..
- We have amazing teachers. Truly. They are tough, strong, determined, and they care about our kids. And I speak as a mother of a child who has ADHD. My son loves school. He loves learning. And the credit for that goes directly to his teachers and the structured but supportive environment they create.
- We use an “elevated” grading scale: 93 percent is the cutoff for an “A.” Anything below a 60 percent is considered failing, not a “D.” In short, we don’t mess around when it comes to academic rigor.
- We are situated in close proximity to three charter schools that have excellent reputations. Great Hearts Academies operates two campuses within a few miles, Basis has one. (I know you are familiar with those schools — your ally, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey — talks about them a lot.)
I tell you this, Ms. DeVos, because I too am familiar with charter schools and private campuses. I know parents who send their children to them (including some in my own family.)
It would be convenient for me to do so as well. But I chose to send my kids to a public school because I believe in public education.
I know there are bad and underperforming public schools all around this country, and in my own state. I know there are children every day who are at a severe disadvantage because they aren’t able to access quality education.
I know the education system in the United States is, in many ways, broken and bloated and in need of reform.
Watch: Betsy DeVos on Trump Budget, School Innovation
But I also believe there are amazing things happening in public schools in every city in every state …every day. I believe there are incredible teachers working without a lot of money and resources…because they are passionate about their calling.
And I think it insults them — and all of the parents like myself who love our neighborhood schools — when you visit a state and praise its education system, but don’t set foot in a single public school during your stay.
Come to Arizona. Visit a few of our best charters and private campuses: Basis, Arizona School for the Arts, Phoenix Country Day School, Brophy and Xavier College Preparatory.
But spend some time in our best public schools too. I already told you that you are welcome at mine.
Others you might consider: Sunset and Centennial Elementary, the Phoenix Bioscience High School, Sunnyslope High School, or myriad other primary campuses across the Valley that are working hard to educate our kids in a time of decreased funding and support.
And while you’re here in the state, don’t forget to check out schools like Havasupai Elementary School, a Native American campus near the Grand Canyon that hardly deserves to be called a school at all.
Students there aren’t taught science or history, or arts. There is no library. And it actually closes for weeks at a time because it doesn’t have a stable lineup of teachers.
Spend a day at Havasupai. See what challenges those kids and families face.
But don’t stop there.
When you leave Arizona, go do the same thing in California, Maine, Texas, Idaho…all across the country.
I’ve friends in states all over the U.S., and most of them love their public schools and would be happy to tell you why.
Only then will you be able to make informed decisions and recommendations about how to reform and improve our country’s entire education system.