5 Ways Parents Can Protect Their Public Schools From Betsy DeVos

Teacher and students in classroomiStock.com/monkeybusinessimagesAfter billionaire lobbyist Betsy DeVos was confirmed as US education secretary, I started to see concerned posts from fellow parents in my newsfeed. Some of them worried that DeVos's influence might force them to consider pulling their kids out of their neighborhood public schools. But as a former teacher, a parent, and now someone who reports on issues affecting public school teachers and students for the United Federation of Teachers, I respond with: Don't abandon public schools. If you care about public education, now is the time to stay and actually fight for its future.

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Here are five things you can do right now to protect your public school from Betsy DeVos.

1. Learn the vocabulary.
Then do your homework. DeVos made a name for herself in her home state of Michigan by advocating "choice" for parents in school enrollment. Which sounds like a good thing, because who doesn't want more choices? But the crux of DeVos's "school choice" plan relies on redistributing federal funding (especially Title I funds, which are aimed at helping students in poverty) away from public schools toward private schools in the form of vouchers, tax credits, and other euphemisms. And when funding is spread thin, everybody loses.

When you start to hear terms like "education tax credit" or "tax-credit scholarship," do your research into what those terms really mean (hint: ways of funneling federal money from public schools to private ones) and what those programs would mean for your school district. Learn about your school's budget and where its funding comes from -- and how much it might stand to lose if DeVos has her way.

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2. Make yourself heard at the top ...
Two Republican senators -- Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine -- ultimately voted against DeVos because of objections from their constituents. Make your voice heard! Become comfortable with calling your senators and representatives, and use social media to spread your message. Remember that for hundreds of years public schools have been the backbone of education in this country. Don't be afraid to speak up in their defense.

3. ... and on the ground.
As the saying goes, "All politics is local." In her confirmation hearing, DeVos repeatedly said that many issues in education should be left up to individual states, rather than the federal government. In New York, where I live, that could mean we're relatively insulated from some of the more repellent policies DeVos would like to implement (such as taking away protections for trangender students). But if this isn't the case in your state, familiarize yourself with the local decision-makers that set policies for education. Is it the governor? A school board? Pay close attention to what those influencers are doing in terms of educational issues in your area, and make sure they know that you'll be vocal in your opposition to any changes that don't benefit your school.

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4. Demand accountability from your local schools.
Like the idea of charter schools because they offer an innovative alternative to traditional public schools? Be aware that in Michigan, where DeVos was influential in wildly expanding the number of charter schools, eight out of 10 charters perform worse than traditional public schools.

During her confirmation hearing, Senator Tim Kaine pressed DeVos about whether she supported equal accountability for all schools that receive taxpayer funding -- and DeVos declined to say. That's because in Detroit, where DeVos's influence flooded the city with for-profit charter schools, she spent millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers to ensure that there would be virtually no oversight of the school system. That means companies continued to profit by opening more schools, and all the competition for student enrollment meant parents had no way to discern a good school from a failing one.

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Don't be fooled by fancy new school buildings or promises that every student will get an iPad. Don't want to see your child's school run like a business and your child treated like a commodity? Make sure your lawmakers know that you expect proof of positive educational outcomes from the schools in your area.

5. Get organized.
In Detroit, one of the most damaging effects of the "charterization" of the city was the decline of what most parents said they wanted: great neighborhood schools that are part of the fabric of the community. Your child's school should be the heartbeat of your neighborhood. To make that happen, you'll want to align yourself with fellow parents, local advocacy groups, even local businesses -- so that you can all work together toward your vision of what your child's school should be.

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That said, your local public school probably isn't perfect. But it probably isn't the dismal, failing "government school" Betsy DeVos has made it out to be, either. In New York City, where I live, teachers, parents, and students have started a "Public School Proud" campaign to show off the hard work they do every day. It's too early to tell whether DeVos, who has no experience whatsoever in public schools, is listening. But it's not too early to speak out with pride in defense of your child's public school.

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