An Open Letter to Betsy DeVos

The name Red Wheelbarrow Writers is from the iconic poem by William Carlos Williams. They are a loose affiliation of Bellingham based writers. Meeting at least twice monthly to support, encourage and learn from one another — creating community, building skills, and having fun. They can be found at www.redwheelbarrowwriters.com and the Facebook page, www.facebook.com.

Dear Ms. DeVos,

Of all the appointments made to his cabinet by your president — not mine — yours was the one I resisted and feared the most. He-who-shall-not-be-named recently said, “Who knew health insurance could be so complicated?” As a retired public school educator with 35 years of experience as a middle school classroom teacher, building principal and school librarian, I would submit that providing all children with a free, quality education is equally complex.

My first teaching experience took place in an inner city elementary school in Syracuse, N.Y. where 99 percent of the students were African-American, and most of their teachers, like myself, were Caucasian. In 1963, Syracuse Public Schools did not provide a lunch program. Have you ever tried to teach kids who arrive at school every morning hungry and then go home to a lunch which often consisted of soda and potato chips? I have.

In the early 1990s, I became the associate principal of a K-8 school in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom,” historically the most impoverished section of the Green Mountain State. Our school population hovered close to 800 students, and we offered both breakfast and lunch to our children. But filling empty stomachs doesn’t solve all problems. Have you ever made a home visit to find out why two sisters were missing so much school and found them living in an unheated shed with their single mother, sleeping on mattresses on a concrete floor? I have.

As a school librarian in an interstate high school, part of a district established in 2000 to serve students from four small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire, I quickly discovered that students did not come to the library just to look for books. No, I had my “lunch-time regulars.” Teens who could not bear one more day of sitting alone in the cafeteria. Teens who sought the comforting refuge of a couch in the library. Have you ever purchased a book such as “Make Lemonade” by Virginia Euwer Wolff and then placed it in the hands of a depressed 17-year-old girl in hopes that the groundbreaking novel would help her find a way out of a dysfunctional family situation? I have.

But all the experiences I had as a public school educator pale in comparison to those I faced as the mother of my first-born child born with Down syndrome in 1966. Imagine my dismay when my son Steven turned five, and I discovered that the local public school could and did refuse to enroll him in their Kindergarten program. For the next several years Steve rode the “short bus” to his segregated Special Education classroom, away from from his younger brothers, away from the neighborhood kids with whom he played, away from his hometown.

Only the passage of PL94-142 in 1975 guaranteed Steve and other children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate education including placement in an educational environment that allowed the maximum possible opportunity to interact with non-impaired students. By the way, Ms. DeVos, PL94-142 served as the forerunner to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1990. IDEA is the federal legislation you initially said in your confirmation hearing would be “… best left to the states.”

While I am glad you clarified your position in a letter to Sen. Isakson, (R-Ga) on Jan. 21, 2017, I am still greatly concerned about your commitment to not only the education of low-income children, but to those children with developmental disabilities. In the same letter you referenced a family whose son with Down syndrome is the recipient of a Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, and stated that this scholarship “exemplifies how states can … implement the federal law and use their flexibility to insure that parents can choose the learning environment in which their children with disabilities will achieve and thrive.”

These words sound promising until one researches the Jon Peterson program. On their internet site,  http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Other-Resources/Scholarships/Special-Needs-Scholarship I discovered that the scholarship cannot be used to attend a public school, that yearly renewal is not guaranteed and that, “Parents/legal guardians are also responsible for any costs exceeding the amount of the scholarship.” I’m not certain that this program provides the stability I wanted for my son.

Our public school educational system is not perfect, and probably never will be. But public schools remain the best chance for many children to realize their full potential. As a parent, I fought to ensure that all three of my sons received the education to which they were entitled. As an educator, I know that many children cannot count on their parents to advocate for their needs. Author Paul Daugherty states in his book, “An Uncomplicated Life,” that parents need to “expect, not accept.” I could not agree more.

Since you yourself have no experience with public school education, how do you intend to provide continuous improvement and growth for these institutions, which in the fall of 2016 enrolled more than 50 million students? You can be certain I will continue to carefully monitor all action coming out of the office of the Department of Education. For the sake of these children, I will persist.

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