I grew up with the smell of linoleum cleaner and Clorox wipes, with sticky desks and haphazard piles of children’s books. I grew up being passed along teacher to teacher, as my mother’s colleagues and friends were either my own teachers, second mothers or confidantes — I mixed these up frequently. My mother and I studied and worked at different schools. Her responsibilities as a teacher prevented her from caring for me and my brother after school, so we attended a different school in the district.

Outside my own classrooms, I spent hours upon hours in my mother’s fourth grade classroom, cleaning and sweeping, setting up and tearing down brightly colored infographics and multiplication charts. When I finally reached fourth grade, I organized a pen pal program, connecting the students of my classroom with the students of my mother’s. I lived, ate and breathed school. Even when I thought I hated it, even when I had hours of homework, even when I came home crying, having failed a quiz or been delegated to the chorus in a school musical, I loved school.

My elementary school provided students with an impressive drama program, admired both by students and parents alike. In middle school, I was able to learn American Sign Language, learn to play an instrument in band class and even test out of math and science classes. In high school, I had opportunities to take a number of AP courses, join the National Honor Society and embrace creativity and problem-solving in Destination Imagination.

My opportunities were limitless throughout my education. My school district was in no way perfect and our nation’s public education system is deeply flawed. Nevertheless, I felt, and still feel, lucky to have had such a positive experience with public education. I am proud of my education. Even after coming to the University of Michigan and immersing myself with students from well-funded, sought-after public schools and elite private schools, I compete, I thrive, I succeed. All of this is not in spite of my public education, but because of it.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education is a slap in the face to students and alumni of public institutions everywhere. A woman who has never herself attended a public school and who hasn’t sent her own children to public schools is suddenly in charge of this nation’s education system. We have witnessed the prioritization of wealth exceed the relevance of experience, knowledge and intellect. The very ideal public education is built on — that if you study and work hard you can succeed — has been shattered.

DeVos promotes the privatization of publicly funded schooling through voucher programs and charter schools. Voucher programs allow for families to opt out of attending public schools and they promote racial and socioeconomic segregation, which is already perpetuated in the wealthy pursuit of private education. Well-meaning families want the best for their children, but moving wealthy, intelligent students out of public schools can be harmful to the growth and achievement of those who remain.  

Charter schools create a zero-sum game with public schools, such that when charter schools gain, public schools necessarily lose. Charter schools use the public funding allotted to each student to fund educations, which are not held up to the same standards as public schools. Charter schools often seem inviting to those who wish to escape impoverished (and often racially diverse) schools. This also leaves room for the convergence of religion and education, and considering the necessary demise of public schools in order to facilitate the success of charter schools, federal and national standards need not apply.

Teachers and the unions that protect their rights and wages are also threatened by the charter schools movement. Once again, the zero-sum game between charter schools and public schools necessitates that public schools lose funding when charter schools gain funding. If public schools lose enough students, and subsequently lose enough funding, they close and teachers are laid off. Teachers’ options are limited; since there are few teacher’s union present in charter schools, the livelihoods and salaries of our educators are not protected in any way. 

Even more, DeVos’s voucher program is not viable for students with disabilities and further divides students in terms of race, socioeconomic status and intellect. When dividing students on these terms, we perpetuate segregation and deter growth. We deny the benefits of diversity and intellectual discussion from these students. Voucher programs also divide funding between schools, granting more funding to the most successful schools, while schools most in need of assistance or additional funding are forgotten.

K-12 education is transient but powerful. By the time a student graduates, he or she has spent more than 80 percent of his or her life in the school system. Public education creates a national community for students, one that includes members of all backgrounds, incomes, nationalities, races, abilities, etc. The diversity of public education cannot be undermined. Without diversity, we would lose a fundamental American attribute: equality of opportunity.

The public education system is far from perfect. It fails to account for segregation of all forms, problematic universal testing standards, you name it. But for many students like me, it gave me the opportunity to make my own choices, to learn about worlds beyond my own, to meet students diverse in ways beyond the standard measures of diversity. Every spelling quiz, scale jury, AP exam and ACT practice test was and will be a product of public education. It is not just our histories at stake, but our futures.

Megan Burns can be reached at megburns@umich.edu.

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