Jan 162017
 

Dear Senator Casey,

As you gear up for the confirmation hearing of Department of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, I ask you to consider the deep implications of what her vision for education entails.

I recently read a piece by Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, touting the ways in which DeVos has worked to improve education for all children in the states and cities where she has placed her money, influence and efforts. Unfortunately, Governor Jindal is oversimplifying the concept of “school choice” to vilify anyone against the idea of a great education for all students and to paint those who question the idea as trying to maintain a broken system.

In my over 10 years of teaching in Philadelphia, I have worked in schools inside the School District of Philadelphia and in the charter system. I have collaborated with educators across the country, including other parts of Pennsylvania, who work in public, charter and independent schools. I say this to say that I am not biased toward one kind of school. I think that having options is a good thing.

However, I also work at a public, district-run high school here in Philadelphia that draws kids in from all over the city. I have 16 year old students who travel almost 2 hours each way to get to school and home every day. During the winter, they leave their house in the dark and they get home in the dark. Part of what school choice has done in Detroit is create a system where parents are forced to travel for miles to take their children to school. I can’t imagine a parent traveling almost 2 hours every morning to get their 1st grader to school and then making it to work. This is what happens when school choice causes the neighborhood school, the school down the street, to close.

Here in Philadelphia, we are the poster child for “school reform.” We have turnaround schools, consolidated schools, charter school networks, cyber charter schools, independent schools, special admit public schools, and, of course, neighborhood public schools. We have had school choice for a very long time. I have watched as families have had more and more options where to enroll their child through the charter system, and I have witnessed the District innovating and creating new schools to meet the needs of families, as well as individual District schools innovating to provide unique programs to their families. All of this with fewer and fewer resources available. I have also watched as families moved their children from District-run schools into charters, some that do not perform much better, and I have watched corruption scandal after corruption scandal as people try to make a profit off the price tag attached to each kid’s head as they are enrolled in a charter school. Money in Philadelphia’s charter system already follows the student and it has left the District schools in a position where they are tasked with educating an increasingly challenging population with fewer resources.

In a voucher system, who is regulating how these funds are spent? How do we prevent the opportunistic company who comes in and tries to get into the education game with all of the free flowing money now pouring into the system? Who will educate the students with special needs or the students who do not meet admission criteria for these schools? Independent schools are not required to take everyone, whether they have an IEP or not, and, in my experience, a charter school can also tell a parent that they do not have the capacity to meet the IEP goals of a child, and thereby refuse them entry (I’m not sure if it’s legal or not, but I have seen it happen). In addition, who will regulate the cyber charter schools, who receive the same funding per student as brick and mortar schools, but have half the overhead? How will we know that students are being well educated if many of these schools are not required to track data on student progress and achievement? How do we know if they are meeting the needs of ALL students if that data is not required to be tracked? While I am not a proponent of high-stakes testing, data is important to know whether we are reaching all of our kids in the classroom, and schools can collect and report this kind of data in a number of ways. As you know, our state legislature has no interest in regulating charter schools, and it has been to Philadelphia’s detriment. How will the state, then regulate the performance and creation of new schools under a voucher system?

These concerns are just one piece of the concerns I have about DeVos’ nomination. It is hard for me to imagine putting someone in charge of the Department of Education who has never sent her children to public school, attended public school and whose philanthropic efforts to reform and overhaul public education in Michigan have created a “wild west” education system for families in Detroit.

As a parent of a 2 1/2 year old, these conversations are not just about my views as an educator here in Pennsylvania, but also as a parent of a future student here in the city. This is a subject that directly affects me and my family. As a homeowner and tax payer in the city, I am also wary of how my tax dollars are being spent (and am open to different ways of funding schools-hint, hint) and I do not want private corporations vying for my money as they try to get in on the education game.

Please consider these things as you prepare to vote tomorrow. A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a system that sounds good on the surface, but is not a magic bullet. There are many places where the education system is broken and the Department of Education is not perfect, but putting a person with a blinders-on view of public education and political connections to push through a frightening agenda for state public education systems is not the answer.

Thank you for your time,

Mary Beth Hertz
Educator
School District of Philadelphia
Mother of a 2 1/2 year future student in Philadelphia

Dec 192012
 

20121219-232535.jpg

Z loves everything about the planets, the stars, black holes, and anything Space-related. He can rattle off facts and is a very bright child. He is also disorganized, can lose focus easily and works fairly slowly. In a nutshell, he doesn’t “play school” well, but in a different learning environment, he’d thrive.

T is bright and loves motorcycles and cars. Today we talked about the possibility of an automotive career. We talked about how and where he could start along that path. I suggested he look at a technical high school with an automotive program. This way he could get the training he needs without having to pay to go to a ‘technical institute.’ I found one high school in the entire city that advertised an automotive program for incoming freshmen. In a nutshell, T has few options to pursue his passion in high school.

E loves singing. She’s only in 6th grade, but has already asked me if I know any schools that have vocal programs. I directed her to the new greatphillyschools.org site to search. She came back the next day and said she couldn’t find any schools. She had been looking for schools near her neighborhood. I explained that there were only a handful of schools in the district that offer specialized music programs, and that out of those, I wasn’t sure which offered voice specifically. In a nutshell, E will have to travel far from her home to attend such a school, provided she gets in at all.

Every day I am faced with the reality that most Philly kids cannot find a place to explore, develop and discover their passions and talents. Many leave 8th grade clueless as to what their interests even are. There are tons of dedicated Philly parents who pay for karate lessons, organized sports, summer camps and the like, but there are many who simply can’t afford it. Even the luckiest kids are still often stuck in an academic program that stresses mastery of content over self-discovery.

It breaks my heart to see both this lack of outlets in schools for student interests and passions as well as a lack of options for students who know what they want to do. With the recent trend to “turn around” failing schools by handing them over to large charter management networks like Mastery and Universal, whose focus is usually compliance and test scores, the passion-driven model of education has little chance of survival. Tack onto that the added complication of the impending closure and reconfiguring of many high schools around the city and the outlook grows even more grim.

So where do my students go?

Do they seek out a charter school with a mission that matches their interest and play the roulette game of hoping it is on par or better than a district-managed school? Do they suck it up and trudge through a year or two of high school and drop out because they are bored or detached? Do they trudge through high school never really knowing what they want to do and then end up as young adults with no vision for their future? Do they leave public school altogether and go to an independent school that will be more freed up to let kids explore their passions instead of worry about “eligible content” and pacing schedules?

Or maybe I’m painting a gloomier picture than is necessary. I know that there are amazing schools and teachers in Philly that are providing students with real-world experiences, connecting them with their communities in meaningful ways, and giving them opportunities to explore their passions and develop skills for life.

I envision a day, however, when these schools represent the norm. A day when we have re-evaluated what school is for in the first place and a day when my students know that they have options, that there is a seat somewhere in a school setting that meets their dreams and learning style.

I can see no other cause more imperative than investing in the dreams of young people, providing them with pathways to bright futures, and helping them develop skills for life, not just a transcript.

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hufse/18056250/