Vladimir Lenin once famously asked the question “What is to be done?” It neatly encapsulates what is happening inside our public education system today. Given that school budgets are already out of control, and overall results regarding both actual knowledge acquisition and nominal graduation rates for students are not satisfactory, something has to change.
The person President Trump selected to provide an answer to this conundrum is billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos. As an utter newcomer to the bureaucratic jungle, Ms. DeVos’ struggles in her first year are perhaps best illustrated by her desire to serve without pay and donate her salary to worthy educational charities. It has taken almost an entire year just to hammer out a way to do this which would satisfy the dictates of federal workplace rules. Progress on most of her other announced priorities has proceeded at an equally-glacial pace.
In an effort to gauge the efficacy of Ms. DeVos’ first year in office, 80,000 teachers performed evaluations that were hand-delivered to the Department’s headquarters by the American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten. The evaluations faulted DeVos on many fronts such as upholding civil rights in the classroom and ensuring adequate funding for students in disadvantaged circumstances. The AFT-provided evaluations issued an “F” for her performance to date.
Many of Ms. DeVos’ reforms have been delayed due to Congressional non-cooperation, unfamiliarity with the way in which bureaucratic machines operate, and a lack of Senate-approved subordinates to assist her in her duties, it is clear that the AFT is not actually complaining about her lack of academic progress but about her desired priorities– which they find abhorrent in the extreme. In that regard, they may actually end up preferring this year’s performance to whatever traction DeVos may gain in upcoming years.
In at least one regard, the mere presence of Betsy DeVos has been extremely stimulating to the idea of educational reform in this country. If nothing else, her participation in the discussion means that much of what is usually taken for granted is now being called into question. It is entirely possible that a lot of the accumulated institutional framework as it currently exists will be totally vindicated in such an examination. Many of DeVos’ theoretical proposals have already been modified or dropped as her own knowledge of the problem grows. Yet something has to be done.
Most people realize that our current model is not sustainable from either a financial or student learning standpoint. Not only are schools burdened with crumbling infrastructure, frozen or shrinking budgets, and increasing legislative demands on how the sparse available resources must be allocated on a macro scale regardless of the micro needs of any individual school or community, but a gigantic underfunded retirement crisis is also boiling away on the back burner.
The fact that Betsy Devos and Randi Weingarten disagree on which program to adopt is not a shocking revelation. Yet both women are really just avatars for larger points of view that are held by many of their fellow citizens. Somewhere there must be a solution that is not just a zero-sum game for the two sides of the argument. The future of the nation, our children, hang in the balance. If the intent of the President was to appoint someone to burn down the barn, then the DeVos appointment was a huge mistake, If the idea was to introduce a fresh viewpoint and stimulate new suggestions, it may yet prove to be a bold move.