Dear Secretary DeVos,
It’s the first days of school here in Iowa. I had the privilege of spending the first day of school in an amazing elementary school in my district. As I held open the door for the students there were tears (mostly from the parents as they waved goodbye), there was laughter, but mostly there was anticipation. You could feel the excitement from the students, parents, and staff as everyone headed to their rooms to get the year started. Within minutes of the bell ringing I saw classrooms full of students drawing, writing, reading, and even dancing. Every teacher knows that you only get one chance to set the tone for the school year and the staff I observed was taking full advantage of that opportunity. Those young people were fired up to be at school.
As someone who follows what you are up to pretty closely I was curious what message you might send to the teachers and students of our country as the school year starts. To be frank, my expectations were pretty low. As someone who has never taught, attended, or really spent much time in our public schools, I’m not sure that you have much of a sense of what the start of the school year is about, but I was curious nonetheless. Well, I have to admit, you managed to shock me. Guns. The news you generated at the start of the school year was about guns (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/us/politics/betsy-devos-guns.html).
I guess I shouldn’t be shocked anymore. Your agenda has been to shift public dollars to for-profit charter schools, rescind the rights of our most vulnerable young people (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/10/21/devos-rescinds-72-guidance-documents-outlining-rights-for-disabled-students/?utm_term=.9ca8c147a5b3), and take away protections for students who are defrauded by for-profit colleges (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/us/politics/betsy-devos-debt-relief-for-profit-colleges.html). And yet I was genuinely shocked when I read that you wanted to use federal funding to purchase guns for teachers.
The thing is, no one thinks this is a good idea. OK, the NRA and gun manufacturers (I know..one and the same) think it’s a good idea, but teachers, parents, law enforcement officers, even congress think it’s a bad idea. As a matter of fact, congress recently passed a $50 million school safety bill that expressly prohibited the use of money for firearms. The funds that you are considering using to buy guns out of (the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants) were authorized to support young people in one of three goals: providing a well-rounded education, improving school conditions for learning, and improving the use of technology for digital literacy. Those are worthy goals. To use those dollars to arm teachers is beyond ridiculous.
School safety is incredibly important. Since you’ve spent virtually no time in public schools it is possible you aren’t aware that among the things that happens during the first days of school are teacher trainings for a variety of dangerous situations. Every teacher has thought about how they would protect their students in these situations and evidence from numerous school shootings would suggest that teachers have no problem putting themselves between a dangerous individual and their students. With that being said, there isn’t enough training possible to make arming them a good idea.
Here is what I know…there is a mentally unstable person not far from every school in America who has easy access to a firearm. I also know that congress will do nothing to change that. Schools are doing all they can to create a safe environment for students and staff, but as long as it is easy for troubled people to get guns there will be school shootings.
Betsy (can I call you Betsy?), I swear to goodness I would like nothing more than to read a headline that said, “Secretary DeVos calls for increased support for the arts,” or “Secretary DeVos stands up for vulnerable public school students,” but that isn’t going to happen is it? The thing is, this is what I knew would happen. In December of 2016 I begged my Senator to vote against your nomination (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/a-letter-to-my-senator-regarding-betsy-devos_us_5840b07ae4b04587de5de88b) because I knew that you would be a shill for those seeking to make a buck off of public education. What I couldn’t have imagined then was that among the charter school and for-profit college fat cats you would include gun manufacturers among those that you would help profit off of our schools.
I can’t think of a cabinet secretary in my memory that our country has had lower expectations for. You have no background as an educator, you have no experience with public schools, and your only qualification is that you used your wealth to meddle (unsuccessfully) with schools in Michigan, and yet you have crawled under the low bar once again. As a notable politician might tweet… SAD.
It seems unlikely that you’ll be able to pull off getting this money into the hands of gun manufacturers, but that’s not really the point. Your role should be to set the agenda for conversations about our schools. The Secretary of Education should seek to empower schools, teachers, and most importantly students. Yet, at every turn, you empower the already powerful. You actively make it harder for schools to protect our most vulnerable young people. Do you have a sense of how history will look back on your tenure in this role? The teacher of the third grade classroom where I saw students smiling and dancing on the first day of school doesn’t have to worry about her legacy; it will be in the future she is she is creating for her students. Your legacy, well, yours will be different.
Patrick J. Kearney