My dad has a saying he used to preach to me and my brothers: “Knowledge is power.” Often shortened to the acronym “KIP,” every repetition of the phrase invited an annoyed look and eye roll from me. Yet, as I grew older and realized my father wasn’t as clueless as my seven-year-old self thought him to be, I began to experience the true importance and relevance of what he meant.

I went to a public school in suburban Cincinnati, and because of the three lines of my address, it happened to be a highly-funded one, dubbed a “good” public school. Because of property taxes and a legacy of supporting teachers, the district I grew up in was a true testament to the power of public education. There was diversity in every shape and form: socioeconomic status, race, background, interests, etc. Passing our city’s levy was never an issue and funding to the arts, though arguably less than sports, was still significant. Our graduation rate never faltered below 90 percent, and test scores were always at or above average. My high school, in short, was the epitome of a quality public education.

My school district provided me with experiences that I could talk about on my college essays, allowing me to directly answer the common and overused question of how I participated in activities “both inside and outside the classroom.” I had the opportunity to get involved in numerous sports teams and arts programs while at the same time taking AP classes and cultivating a passion for learning. I was subsequently able to apply to and attend a prestigious university and continue my education in the hopes of pursuing a career of my choice.

My education story may be similar to your own, but for many others, education is plagued with inequality. The disparity in the public school system makes education no longer a strength for the future but a liability, and Betsy DeVos’s pending confirmation as the Secretary of Education is not a remedy for the situation, but an aggravator. 

The Daily published an editorial last semester denouncing DeVos’s involvement in Detroit’s public school system and the danger of her policy tactics on improving public education post-nomination. I echo these sentiments, and as a product of the public school system, I echo them fervently. Betsy DeVos has long been an ardent supporter of privatizing education in the form of charter schools and vouchers. Her approach to education is one that focuses on public school alternatives, instead of public schools themselves. DeVos has financially supported and pioneered numerous school choice ventures, including lobbying groups and voucher programs. But her approach to education reform, like the approaches of many others, is ignoring a vital component of education — teachers.

I attended a great public school, but what made my education powerful was the quality of teaching I had along the way. Education reform has been focused on relieving inequality through funding and the wages of teachers, but always seems to disregard inequality in teaching quality. DeVos’s support of privatization is taking a political and financial stance on reform but ignoring other vital parts of education policy: the men and women at the front of the classroom.   

The number of students enrolled in public schools is set to increase by 3 percent to 51.4 million students in 2025. The National Center for Education Statistics shows individual state enrollment is projected to increase by even more. Granted, some states will see a lowering in enrollment, but the general trend shows a shift toward an increased number of students in public schools. This growing number of students in public education means the vital and impactful student-teacher interactions will increase. While DeVos sees school choice in the form of charter schools and vouchers as a way to mitigate inequality in education, her aversion to improving the fundamental problems of public schools is detrimental. 

Instead of facing the everyday issues of public schools, particularly those in inner-city districts, the nominee has a track record of pouring billions of dollars into alternative educational systems. But now isn’t the time to jump ship, even if the ship is leaky. No, now is the time to patch it up. However, with a captain like DeVos, abandoning ship seems more her style. The broadcasted confirmation hearing proved her lack of experience in the field of education. I, myself, and many of you, have more experience when it comes to public education than the woman who has been nominated to reform the system.

Yet, regardless of who is leading reform, the quality of teachers has never been a focused component of policy. Monetary funding is a policy lever that is sure to alleviate those failing public schools, but improving teacher preparation programs could do so as well. What I learned through my education was powerful, yet much of the power came from the interactions I had with my teachers. Each one, regardless of whether I conventionally liked them or not, was qualified and driven in what they did.

The downward death spiral of public schools in inner cities begins when the most unqualified teachers are hired at schools because of underemployment. Unlike, say, medical school, teacher preparation programs are not uniform. There is a lack of thorough standardization between programs, resulting in some of the teaching force being underprepared for the classroom. A recent Department of Education initiative stressed the idea of improving teacher preparation as a gateway to improving student achievement. A policy that looks beyond simply increasing funding but also at the teachers we are putting in classrooms is one that could have dramatic effects.

While DeVos’s nomination is a fundamental threat to public schools, at a deeper level it is a threat to empowering all American students with knowledge. As my dad would say, “knowledge is power,” and by disregarding the power a good public school can have and further abandoning improvement of the traditional system altogether, DeVos’s policy approach will make education a weakness.

Anu Roy-Chaudhury can be reached at anuroy@umich.edu.

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