Taking Betsy DeVos to school: If Trump's education secretary pick spent a day in one of the many underfunded city schools, she might understand them

If Betsy was Dev, a kid in a poor urban school district, this is what she'd face every day

By D. Watkins
Published February 2, 2017 12:59PM (EST)
 (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

So your name is DeVos, but your friends call you Dev for short. Your school sits way up on a hill that overlooks a collection of housing projects. The housing projects, your neighborhood, are chock-full of African-Americans. Not because African-Americans like housing projects, but because the 1944 GI bill was funny with the money.

See, the bill allowed white World War II veterans to return home after the war and instantly qualify for inexpensive mortgages on new houses that eventually became known as the suburbs. Many of those same white men were able to use that bill to pay for university educations, and after they graduated the bill helped them start businesses with low-interest loans that ultimately created an indestructible social fabric for them to hire their white kids and white friends so they could fully participate in the American Dream. Meanwhile, the bulk of African-American vets were denied home loans and college acceptance as the racist policies in place slam-dunked them right in the middle of the projects.

Back to you, Dev, and the projects around you chock-full of African-Americans. Together, you join hands with friends and skip up the hill to your beloved school. Now, all of your neighborhood friends can’t come because some are being bused to charter schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods full of people and dangers that you don’t know. Maybe they’ll make it home safe; maybe they won’t.

You arrive at your school. Its funding is tax based and so the asphalt playground is cracked in every direction, barely holding up a rusty goalpost attached to a rimless, equally rusted backboard. You rip and run across the front, eagerly waiting to get in because you are one of the lucky kids who qualifies for breakfast vouchers. (Some of your friends don’t qualify even though their parents can’t really afford to feed them in the morning.)

You’re a nice person, so you share, and together you feast on microwaved eggs, syrupy fruit cups and grayish-greenish mystery meat. You like to wash it down with strawberry whole milk. But don’t forget to check the expiration date because you hate the taste of the grainy sour chunks that float in the old boxes.

A guy in a colorful tie says, “Hello!” as you bite into the mystery meat. You wave back. He doesn't know your name, and you don’t know his. He’s the principal, but you don’t know that because he’s the third one in four months. They tend to quit often around here. You finish breakfast and head to class. Your path is covered with cigarillo tips, crumpled papers and an occasional desk. The stairwell smells like hot fries and boiled piss. You follow the trail of trash straight to your class.

Your teacher hugs you every morning you make it in and sneers at the boys who wrestle in the back of the room, while their friends record the fight videos from World Star. “They don’t understand how important education is," your teacher says. "They are gonna fail and it's they own fault.” Your teacher doesn’t understand because she’s not really a teacher; she’s an aide who fills in as a crossing guard, janitor, mentor, grandma, security guard and whatever else the school needs her to be that day.

She doesn’t get that black people came to America in 1619 and received no form of formal education until 1863 after Lincoln had decreed the Emancipation Proclamation, which basically means that white students had a 244-year head start in developing school culture, let alone being exposed to math, science, critical thought and understanding the power of reading. Your teacher is a good woman who can probably give you some great insights; however, she didn’t finish high school or college, like many of the people in your neighborhood. So you probably can’t see past accomplishing that, especially since the average person in America goes only as far in education as their parents did.

The rest of your day will include a number of classes like your first period with the aide. There's also the young, fresh-out-of-college teacher who wants to make a difference but can’t figure out how to split three textbooks between 35 children, so she transfers that anger onto you­­. She’ll quit soon. Then there's art class with the substitute who pays more attention to his phone than his job, lunch with different color mystery meat, gym if you are lucky, and then back to your neighborhood full of the same school culture that guarantees a permanent underclass in America will always exist. Some make it out, but most don’t have a shot.

This is not just my experience, but a mixture of the experiences of my family members, closest friends and the many young people I mentor, combined with those of the students in many urban schools I have visited across the country. DeVos, who appears to know little about public education, financial aid or anything that non-billionaires go through, needs to understand that this is the system that she is about to inherit. More important, this is what her average day would look like as a student in an underfunded public school if she weren’t lucky enough to be a billionaire.

Again, President Donald Trump is proving that he doesn’t care about the bottom 99 percent of America (including his supporters) by throwing public education into the hands of  DeVos — a person who supposedly has decades of experience in education but can’t even come up with her own answers to confirmation hearing questions. Is this happening or is it a dream? Our nation is close to confirming a clueless, disconnected, GOP super-donor with too much family money who believes that guns should be in schools because of possible grizzly bear attacks? Wow.

I wonder how many poor schools DeVos has visited? If she had been to more than one, she would know that charter schools are not always the answer. And she doesn’t have to go far. She could start with the string of failed or flailing charter schools in Michigan. She didn't send her kids to one of those schools, and rightfully so.

But there's a theory in which her financial interest in mediocre charter solutions makes sense. You see, her family money comes from Amway, a company that sells the dream of entrepreneurship and financial freedom by convincing people that selling its products can create wealth. Most people who try multilevel marketing fail, as the top execs get paid off of the extremely high registration fees.

If young people aren’t educated properly, many will drop out of school or graduate without the skills to make good decisions. Those kids could grow up to do really stupid things, like signing up for Amway in search of wealth that will never come. Sooner or later, that money could just flow back to her.

D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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Amway Betsy Devos Charter Schools Education Public Schools Secretary Of Education