Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Betsy DeVos: Poster Child for Patronage and Privilege

Billionaire Betsy DeVos is getting pilloried on Capital Hill for her seeming inability to answer "yes" or "no" questions during her hearing for the position of Secretary of the Department of Education. Even more ridiculous, DeVos admitted she favored guns in schools, relaying a story about a Wyoming school that was worried about grizzly bear attacks.

DeVos has no professional experience in public schools, never attended public schools nor sent her own children to public schools. She has never held public office. She has stated it's possible her family has donated $200M to Republicans. DeVos is quoted (prior to the hearing) as saying "My family is the single largest contributor of soft money to the National Republican Party. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return."

DeVos has lobbied for decades to expand charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools. No fan of public schools (since she has no immediate experience with them), the American Federation of Teachers is no fan of hers. AFT president Randi Weingarten is on record as saying, "The sum total of [DeVos's] involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan. Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation."

Patronage has existed for centuries. A logrolling technique was revealed in New York's School Construction Authority agency decades ago – unable to create jobs for their own family members, staffers would hire each other's wives as secretaries and assistants. When one such secretary was fired for rank incompetence, her husband retaliated by firing his coworker's wife. She sued – thus exposing the ruse and creating a massive scandal and a host of new anti-nepotism regulations.

But I have a more personal reason to oppose DeVos. I've seen the effects of partisan patronage at work and it was damaging and unfair to a large community of people, with ripple effects that are still being felt.

A decade ago, my older son was enrolled in a special education program. After the first year, we were informed that he was being shifted to a classroom setting in a different public school in Queens. I attended an introductory session in the late spring at the new school, prior to the end of his first year at the initial public school.

It was a veritable lovefest. The principal informed us that she was retiring after 17 years but assured everyone that her longtime assistant would  be taking over. Everyone was laughing, saying "It's a family here, your kids will be an integral part of a larger community at our school."

Smash-cut to September. I discovered that my son's classroom was kept isolated. The kids didn't even have lunch in the general cafeteria because instructors were worried that the noise and commotion would distract or upset them, or worse, that the children wouldn't eat.

More troubling, my son was going from a fully-integrated class (10 typical and spectrum children) to four spectrum children. Where is the integration? At a hastily-scheduled meeting with the principal, assurances were made that once a week – for one period (40 minutes) the four children would  be brought into one of the "typical" kindergarten classes.

It was then that the truth was determined – this new principal was NOT the former assistant to the retiring principal. She was, in fact, a longtime high-ranking staff member at the New York Department of Education. After serving as a desk jockey for decades, she decided to pull rank, call in favors, and secure a position at a school. The rug was pulled out from under the retiring principal. Her assistant, rather than serve under this unqualified woman, also retired. The school was thrown into some disarray. The new principal put many unpopular policies into play. She locked down communications. She micro-managed. Her door might be open, but she was not going to see you on a moment's notice.

At a special education event at Queens College, my (then) wife ran into groups from our son's original public school as well as this new school. The group from the former school greeted her warmly and they all sat together – including the principal. The staff from the new school acknowledged her presence; the teachers sat in one location and the principal sat elsewhere.

My son floundered in this new setting. He developed a series of nervous ticks and behavioral issues. He regressed in his language skills. He regressed in social settings with typical children. For several weeks, his class did not integrate with the typical kindergarten class. My son clearly missed his interactions with the children he had met. His instructor preferred to communicate through a notebook sent home every day. But she would simply not respond about this issue. Finally I dropped off our son, walked past the distracted security guard, and went into the classroom to ask her directly why this was happening.

When I picked up my son that day, there was a note from the principal requesting a meeting. I attempted to go into the office and meet with her then and there, but the secretary said she was busy but I could come back the next morning. I was asked why I ignored security.

"I merely wanted to ask the teacher a question," I responded.

"Isn't that what the communication book is for?" I was told.

"Yes, but the teacher was not answering."

"Well, the instructors are busy with other things at the end of the day," she said.

"There are four children in the class. There is an assistant and an occupational therapist who pushes in. She did not answer this question, when asked directly for three days."

The principal paused. "Then you should have contacted me, and I would have instructed the teacher to answer your question."

"Alright," I said, "this class is supposed to integrate on a regular basis with the kindergarten. Why don't the children eat lunch in the regular cafeteria? Why aren't they part of the regular music program? Why are they completely isolated? We were told that they would be fully integrated into the school."

The principal nodded. "Yes, but that was before the class was established. Now we are working to integrate the children."

"Alright," I said, "When is the regular music class for kindergarten?"

"I can find that out for you."

"When is the regular gym period? When is the regular art period?"

She stopped me. "Your children are in a special program. There schedule does not match up with all of the regular activities."

"Then they are not being fully integrated and we were lied to," I said, "Which is something I will take up with the Department of Education."

Her eyes narrowed but I continued. "These children are being treated like something is wrong with them. Don't think they don't notice they are segregated. It is affecting them. It is definitely affecting my son."

"Mr. Cohen, I will look into your concerns and get back to you."

The next day, the teacher finally wrote a note about the integration – the kindergarten teacher had arbitrarily switched the period between two activities. And my son's teacher refused to alter HER schedule so the four kids could still have integrated play time.

At this point, we made an attempt to pass a note directly to the teacher in the regular kindergarten class. My (then) wife wrote a note, told the security guard she was going to the office, and left the note in her mailbox. Aha! The secretary realized that the mailbox was not the one for my son's teacher.

That afternoon, there was an official sealed envelope from the principal in my son's folder. It was a document stating our letter had been "intercepted," that it was "inappropriate to communicate with teachers other than our child's," and that this "incident" would be noted in our son's record at the school.

Long story short, we limited our involvement at that school. I had attended every PTA meeting at the previous school, even volunteering to edit their parent newsletter (which included finding a new printer, saving them thousands of dollars in the process). This became akin to serving the rest of a prison sentence. At the end of the school year, my son was given a private placement, mainly because the school administration realized how badly they – under this unqualified principal – had botched this special needs program. Luckily my son went to a different school and we "worked out" the kinks over the next year or two. Meanwhile, we were told to save the horror story until he "aged out," to dispel any retaliation.

The moral is that patronage rarely works. Giving a job to someone who demands it due to seniority, favoritism, or in return for financial donations, does not make them instantly qualified. In most instances, it should automatically disqualify them.

Massachusetts Senator Maggie Hassan (who has a disabled son) realized during the hearing that DeVos didn't know the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act exists. Betsy DeVos is a woman who craves to shape a department she is ill-equipped to run. Much like the Affordable Care Act, she wants to dismantle an existing (though flawed) system before having something ready to put in its place.

Realizing her inherent flaws, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, limited questioning to five minutes per representative. DeVos declined, under questioning, to say whether she plans to rein in the Office for Civil Rights, which investigates allegations of discrimination in schools. Asked by gun control advocate Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy – whose constituents include Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary – whether she would support Trump if he moves forward with his proposal to ban gun-free school zones, DeVos said she would “support what the president-elect does.”

I have no doubt that DeVos's attorneys and sycophantic aides told her how great she did under pressure. Considering the division between the major political parties, it is probable she will fly through confirmation. But I warn parents to remain vigilant. If you did not advocate for your children before, or support their schools, now is the time. Betsy DeVos is a dangerous, affluent woman. She will be out of office and back home, sipping a drink poured by a servant and sighing, "Well, we tried," while tens of thousands of school children deal with the fallout from her ineffective, poorly-conceived charter school initiatives.

Donald Trump has nominated the wealthiest, most grossly inadequate group of people to serve him on his cabinet. It is an insult to the American people. And Betsy DeVos may be the most egregious slap in the face.
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