DeVos contends giving students choice is solution. How about giving them stability?

President Donald Trump thanks fourth-graders Janayah Chatelier and Landon Fritz for the homemade greeting cards they presented during his visit to St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla., Friday, March 3, 2017. With the president, from left to right, are: Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner; U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Trump daughter Ivanka Trump. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

In her first eight weeks as U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos has aggressively preached the gospel of school choice, commending vouchers, tax credit scholarships and charter schools at every turn.

Speaking shortly after a confirmation battle that required a tie-breaking vote by the vice president, DeVos told the Council of Great City Schools, “In too many cities and states, parents are still denied the simple, but critical choice of what school their child attends.” In a visit to a Catholic school in Florida, DeVos said, “Parents deserve the right to choose the education that is best for their child.”

She reiterated those positions today at the Brookings Institution, saying, “Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ride sharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice.”

In touting choice, the secretary has cited the same success story — Denisha Merriweather, a master’s degree student at the University of South Florida who attended President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress and was acknowledged in his remarks. Failing third grade twice and about to be held back from middle school, the 25-year-old Merriweather was on a path to failure until Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program enabled her to leave public school for a private Christian academy, according to Trump and DeVos.

But the president and secretary omit a few key biographical facts that contributed to Merriweather’s academic turnaround.

In her account of her early childhood, Merriweather wrote, “Things at home were unstable. The time I spent with my biological mother was often in a Jacksonville hotel room. We moved more than five times over the next few years. With every move, I’d wind up in a different school. With every new school, I had to meet new teachers, administrators, and classmates.”

But then Merriweather gained something that had been missing in her life, something research shows is critical to academic success – a consistent home life and role model.

Her life transformed when she moved in with her godmother at the end of elementary school. “She enrolled me at Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a small, private school on the Northside of Jacksonville, using a Step Up for Students tax credit scholarship. Now my life had something it hadn’t had before: stability. I had my own room at home, which provided me a place of solace. I didn’t have to change schools anymore…she had a job at a Brooks Rehabilitation facility, made an honest wage, and set a good example for me.”

Today, the House and Senate education committees listened to former Marietta High School principal Leigh Colburn talk about what she discovered when she asked hundreds of students unlikely to graduate what got them off track, where it wrong for them in school.

The teens didn’t blame indifferent teachers or crowded classes. They listed far more personal barriers: Their parents’ divorce. Homelessness. Family violence. Their father’s death or incarceration. Their mother’s drug addiction. The suicide of a friend. Their own addictions. Depression. A need to work two jobs. Four schools in four years.

And when Colburn asked what would keep them in school and focused, none mentioned the interventions emphasized in school improvement plans. They didn’t point to increased academic opportunities and rigor or tutoring and summer classes. They cited grief counseling after their grandmother died. Help with rent when their family was evicted. Counseling for their mom. Therapy for themselves. A job for their dad. Stability.

Today, Colburn tries to provide those services at the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center she leads at Marietta High School. The 2-year-old program yokes community social services, academic assistance and behavioral support under a single roof in the high school. Students can obtain life coaching, professional etiquette training, yoga classes, interview skills, stress management techniques and wellness advice. There is a food pantry where kids can get a snack or a family the makings of dinner. There’s a laundromat. Through a clothing closet, students can borrow, take or donate items. A range of community organizations, including faith-based groups, work with the Student Success Center.

The dynamic Colburn — a possible candidate in my view for the state’s newly created chief turnaround officer — says, “The whole magic behind the center is to teach students to self advocate, to treat them with respect while they are doing so and, as timely as possible, to match them with the community partner that can provide the funding, the expertise and the resources to address their barrier.”

It would be wonderful if simply changing schools could save at-risk students, as DeVos seems to believe. And that may happen for a few kids, but the obstacles to success undermining most students don’t originate with the schools. And those barriers cannot be overcome by the schools alone.

Reader Comments 0

74 comments
sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

I would love for DeVos or anyone else to provide proof that providing vouchers to parents will increase educational outcomes for all children. To date, no information seems to exist. What we can do is look to Chile and see what happened when they removed the focus on financing public schools to give parents choice under the rule fo the dictator Pinochet. He was put in place to push the agenda of Milton Friedman and the free market supply for all things in the public arena, including education. A few decades later and the schools are in disarray. Now the public is having to spend billions to put a stable public education back together. Be smart. Don't be like Betsy and don't be like Chile. 

RamonMendoza
RamonMendoza

Republicans will give themselves credit for having parents who provided them with a good education and teaching them a healthy work ethic.  And shame on anybody who didn't have that advantage.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Haha. Republicans chastise poor parents for making poor choices and needing welfare, food stamps, and medicare. In the next breath they are for "choice" and assert that parents know best. These republicans are liars, and are particularly transparent and greedy. They have no guiding logic or argument. Can we please get mo'betta republican posters 'roun here?

time for reform
time for reform

@Starik 

Perhaps. But any fool can also wish the best for his/her child. And realize when his/her local school isn't delivering results.

Julie Montague
Julie Montague

Learning cannot take place without meeting basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. You can send kids to a "better" choice school, but if they have no breakfast, clean clothes and/or a safe home, caring about school for them is highly irrelevant.

TGT88
TGT88

But then Merriweather gained something that had been missing in her life, something research shows is critical to academic success – a consistent home life and role model...stability. 


Exactly. And there's virtually NO WAY a godless secular government can provide those things. Colburn's efforts at "life coaching, professional etiquette training, yoga classes, interview skills, stress management techniques and wellness advice," are, for the most part, little more that another "school improvement plan." 


Liberals need to face the facts: If you insist on keeping God and his moral standards and teachings out of the school system, then there's NO WAY schools will be equipped to handle the baggage so many of our youth are plagued with. Good government should at least "do no harm" when it comes to family "stability." However, with the widespread embrace of the liberal agenda when it comes to the family, in many cases government--including the government schools--has done great damage to the family in America. 

Starik
Starik

@TGT88 What difference would it make? Restoring "God" means what? Mandatory school prayer again? Prayer to which God?

RamonMendoza
RamonMendoza

@TGT88 I reject your assertion that school prayer is a liberal-conservative issue. Conservatives are all for prayer in school until the Muslim or Jewish principal arraives...

TGT88
TGT88

@Starik @TGT88 Who said anything about prayer? People can still pray in schools. How about NOT teaching the liberal lies when it comes to marriage/family/sexuality. We could/should start there.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

A side note: The Legislature is in the final stretch where bills are being killed, revived and amended in hastily called meetings and long, tense floor debates. So, I found it interesting the House and Senate education committees carved out time Wednesday morning to hear from a Marietta school official -- Leigh Colburn gave an impressive presentation on her district's innovative approach to at-risk high school students. But I wondered about the timing. Why bring her in amid the chaos of the final two days of the 2017 session?

Could Colburn be somebody's choice for the newly created chief turnaround officer? If so, I could see why.

Ralph-43
Ralph-43

Very nice essay Maureen.  DeVos is dangerous.  Whether planned or not, she wants to divert public money to schools with an 'Admissions Officer', i.e., the ability to reject applicants.  We all know what that means.  The Public Schools are already underfunded. Adequate funding would not only increase the quality and permanence of the teaching staff but add the necessary staff to counsel and aid parents in providing the assistance and supervision you are describing.  The Republicans have been attempting to create a dependent, subservient class of 'slaves' for years and DeVos is the Plantation Owner swinging the whip.  

Alt AJC
Alt AJC

@Ralph-43 

Yeah, parental choice would be dangerous. To failed teachers and administrators.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Alt AJC @Ralph-43 

Parents have choice now. You just want to steal taxpayer money for choice you cannot afford. Get a second job and quit crying. 

USMC2841
USMC2841

We depend on the parents to raise the kid, and rightfully so, but we don't allow those parents to choose a school they think best suits their child's needs.  This seems to be a conflict.  They're given the responsibility but not the tools.

Astropig
Astropig

@USMC2841


We even give the mother the power of life or death over these kids(literally),but if they survive that "choice",that's where the choosing seems to be put into the hands of an unelected elite.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Astropig @USMC2841

You hypocrites- you condemn poor parents as terrible at making choice but see all parents as perfect at making educational choices for their kids. You are either ignorant, stupid, greedy or liars. You can choose more than one from the menu.

time for reform
time for reform

@AvgGeorgian 

How dare he, or anyone else, challenge your right to speak on behalf of all parents, teachers and taxpayers!!!

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@time for reform @AvgGeorgian

I speak for myself - a taxpayer with no kids. If the plan is to let ONLY parents of school aged children choose how to spend MY money, I want to be able to choose not to pay education taxes. Pay your own money for YOUR choice you greedy ....

time for reform
time for reform

It's inconceivable that many parents concerned about their children's education could oppose school choice. Especially as one of those available choices will always be the status quo of the neighborhood traditional public school.

What is perfectly conceivable is that the education establishment will continue to resist having to compete for education dollars. 

Resistance led by teachers' union bosses rather than by parents.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@time for reform

“What is perfectly conceivable is that the education establishment will continue to resist having to compete for education dollars.”

Is this supposed to be or represent some kind of reasoned proposition or argument?  If so, then the so-called status quo doesn’t look so bad, at all.