Just a couple of months after the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, she has already taken actions that have been riddled with controversy. Even before she was appointed, when Donald Trump had only nominated her, people were skeptical of the decision. While parents of children who attend public schools have reason to be concerned about her stances, teachers at public schools are in a different position entirely as her role affects what their careers are centered around. In order to fully understand what the teachers are feeling about her appointment, I interviewed some staff members here at LFHS.
“As a general rule, when someone gets appointed to a governmental position, they should have some background in that position,” stated Mr. Wanninger, a teacher in the English Department. Other teachers here agreed. “I keep hearing this business about universities and high schools being just like a business, and they aren’t, and when people think that way there are really unfortunate responses to that, because we don’t make widgets,” articulated Mrs. Clark, another English teacher. “We teach people, so you don’t really see the product, but you can talk to the product, and if the product really understands and loves learning, then you’re in great shape.” I agree, we are not a product, and our education in public schools does matter.
Cabinet members carry a lot of influence in government policy. This means that the Secretary of Education carries a lot of influence in education policy and can make decisions that bring us forward or backwards. One such step backwards was regarding the transgender school bathroom laws, which were a major step forward for the LGBTQ community. President Trump turned it into a state rights issue, which allows many socially conservative states to repeal the protections given. “I was actually a bit encouraged by the reports that DeVos disagreed in policy with Trump and Sessions about rolling back the rights of transgender students in schools,” said Mr. Wanninger, who is also the adult advisor of the school’s LGBTQ Alliance Club, “It is nice to know that DeVos does not believe in taking back rights once they’ve been recognized,” he continued. “However, she only opposed Trump in theory and not in practice, so the effects on marginalized students will be the same.”
“It really is an issue of discrimination,” Mrs. Lemke, a math teacher at LFHS, told me. “If you look through that lens, this actually isn’t about bathrooms per se. I think it’s about treating people as people no matter what.”
Part of the surprise in DeVos’ verbal opposition to the change in the school bathroom law is her prioritization of traditional Christian values. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, have both been advocates for a new push of Christianity in America. Betsy DeVos has given indication that she wants Christianity to be intertwined with public schools and as a part of public education. According to French teacher Madame Song, “our schools need to be a place where religion can be discussed–I definitely think that–but I think it’s important that we allow all religions to be discussed and not just one school of thought.”
France is a good example of what being secular means, being one of the most secular western nations in the world today, which dates back to the French Revolution of 1789. According to Mrs. Clark, France can be used as an example in regard to the bathroom laws as well, “All you have to do is put doors on little cubicles and who cares? That’s what the French do, and it works very well indeed.”
Overall, DeVos wants to push a conservative agenda onto schools in many areas, like religion and even with firearms. Mr. Simmons, one of the Economics teachers at LFHS, pointed out to me that DeVos believes in keeping guns in schools to protect from grizzly bear attacks.
As someone who has attended a charter school in Michigan, DeVos’ stomping ground, as well as Illinois public schools, I can say that both are good. Each have their pros and cons, but to expect one to be the other or transforming one into being like the other is ridiculous. They are completely different educational environments.
The teachers I interviewed all agreed that they believe that Betsy DeVos didn’t deserve the appointment to be Secretary of Education, but they want to wait and see, and are willing to keep an open mind and give her a chance. “[A]s long as she’s willing to really listen and take things into account maybe things could work out still. So yeah, I hope for that,” Mrs. Lemke remarked. I agree, we all have to keep an open mind and hope.
To read the full interview transcripts of my conversations with LFHS teachers, please continue to read below.
Mrs. Heather Song
On the appointment of DeVos:
“I have some concerns. My big concern with her is just her lack of experience in the public education field. She’s never gone to public school, her kids have never gone to public school, she’s never had to take out a student loan, none of her kids have. I personally have zero problem with private schools, parochial schools, or with charter schools. I taught in a private school. I taught at a Catholic high school for the first four years of my career and I loved it. My problem is that when we have someone in charge of public education that has no experience with public education, it creates problems. I’m cool with those other types of schools. I just worry that she has so little experience with the type of schools that the large majority of our kids attend. That’s my biggest concern with her.”\
On religion in public schools:
“I think that our schools need to be a place where religion can be discussed, I definitely think that, but I think it’s important that we allow all religions to be discussed, as more of an academic thing, and that’s what we do here. I definitely think that it’s an okay place to have these discussions about different religions but, again, it can’t just be one–it can’t just be the majority religion. All religions need to be adequately represented and no religious ideals can be pushed on kids in a public education setting”
On Trump leaving bathroom laws up to states
“I think it’s potentially tragic. I’m not going to say it’s tragic from the get-go, but I do think it’s potentially tragic. I think that, number one, from what I heard on NPR this morning, some of those, Title 9, some of those protections were kind of already in place, but what the Obama administration did is they clarified. They didn’t create new laws; rather, they just clarified how schools should protect transgender students, LGBTQ students, and I think that by pulling that back, I worry that we have very, very, very fragile kids that are now not going to be protected because of the state they happen to live in, because now, basically, it’s going to be more up to states to determine how transgender kids are dealt with in schools. Those are some incredibly fragile kids that need protection and that makes me very very concerned. I would love to have seen her raise a little bit more of a fight to that. I also understand that she’s new at her job, and needs to please her boss, she can’t raise too much of a stink, otherwise she might be out.”
Mr. John Wanninger
On the appointment of DeVos
“As a general rule, when someone gets appointed to a government position they should have some background in that position. It seems that some one who has never worked in public education, never been to public schools, never sent her kids to public schools, I find it a little strange that she would be put in charge of public schools. In that way the appointment makes no sense to me at all. I understand the concept of bringing outsiders in, but you have to bring in people who have some concept of what the job entails and she doesn’t seem to have any qualifications in that realm. In addition to things she supports; charter schools, public vouchers, those are antithetical to public schooling in my mind as a teacher, and so it makes no sense to me. It seems like a very random choice unless the administration’s goal is to get rid of the Department of Education, which lots of people have as a stated goal. If that’s his goal, then I guess she makes sense for that, but if [Trump] wants to keep the Department of Ed. around, then it makes no sense to me.”
On religion in public schools
“I’m a big believer in the separation of church and state, so some of her comments are troubling about trying to bring more Christian education into the science classroom in particular. I don’t think she’s taken an official public anti-evolution stance, but from things I’ve read–and some of the things she has said in speeches and things–it seems that that’s in her beliefs and I think that’s sort of dangerous for science education. Talking specifically about bringing Christianity into the classroom, that goes against what our Founding Fathers were about, what our country is about, and about plurality of different beliefs.”
Reaction to Trump leaving bathroom laws up to states
“I was actually a bit encouraged by the reports that DeVos disagreed in policy with Trump and Sessions about rolling back the rights of transgender students in schools. The Obama administration’s guidelines were inclusive, fair, and essential, and it is nice to know that DeVos does not believe in taking back rights once they’ve been recognized. However, she only opposed Trump in theory and not in practice, so the effects on marginalized students will be the same.”
Mrs. Andrea Lemke
On the appointment of DeVos
“It’s a little frustrating. I think that this is something that, you know, on a teacher’s bad day might be something that we would complain about. Being in school as a student you certainly get a feel for what school is like, but you get a completely different perspective when you work in a school. So, much like when I go to the doctor, I might have ideas about my own health, but I trust my doctor’s expertise because my doctor has had far more schooling and understanding, and has seen thousands of patients over the course of her career, whereas I have just experienced being myself. My sniffles or my issues with my health I trust to my doctor and I think that’s similar to the issues, even aside from the issue we’re talking about now. Sometimes people will say, “Well, I’ve been to school so I know how school works” and that’s not entirely the case, I don’t think, if you haven’t had a role as an adult in a school. So it does cause me to pause, not only because of her own personal decisions for her family, but the fact that she’s not actually worked in a school as an adult. She has to look at things in a variety of lenses. I don’t know. I feel like that’s a problem. Now, looking back in my own reading about this current situation I found that there were many times that we’ve had people who were Secretary of Education who weren’t necessarily educators first, they were politicians first, but I still feel a little more comfortable with that because I think that if you’re in the area of public policy then you have an idea about weighing different priorities and such. That it is similar, in theory, to working as an adult in a school. So I do worry about her background a fair bit. That said, I try to be optimistic and open minded and think, “Ok, if she’s going to listen to people around her, that is one step removed from having the experience yourself.” So as long as she’s willing to really listen and take things into account, maybe things could work out still. So, yeah I hope for that.”
On religion in public schools
“I think that’s something that people can certainly, in my opinion, make a decision for within their family. For example, I went to a religious college and that was a decision that I personally made at that time along with help from my parents. However, I wasn’t using public funding to do that. It causes me pause, this whole school voucher idea has always worried me because, I think, one of the biggest problems that public education faces is inequity in funding. For example, for us locally, if you think about the schools in North Chicago versus schools that we’re fortunate enough to teach in and learn in here, we’re just up the road, you know, but there is a difference in funding. So there are reasons that a lot of Lake Forest,Lake Bluff and Knollwood parents choose to live in this district, as compared to maybe some other districts, and that has to do, in large part, with a lack of equity in funding. I worry that a school voucher program, or something that might allow for some nice benefits, like going to a religious school. Although that might be nice, I worry that it would exacerbate that issue and just make it so much more pronounced that there would be “good schools” and “bad schools.” As a teacher I think sometimes that bad schools aren’t bad because of bad people, they have good people, but they’re up against so much more than we might necessarily experience here.”
On the reaction to Trump leaving bathroom laws up to states
“It does concern me. The entire situation concerns me because I feel, over the course of my life, I’ve changed my own opinion about issues related to LGBTQ community issues, and what really made the difference in my own changing of opinion over the course of my adult life is understanding that it really is an issue of discrimination. If you look through that lens, this actually isn’t about bathrooms per se; I think it’s about treating people as people no matter what, and to me that’s something that we as a country, as a people, really need to be on the right side of. I mean think about it, you know the 1960s are before my time, but I think of that era, and thinking ok, you hear now a lot about, or think about people having to use different drinking fountains, or sit at a lunch counter in a different place, or sit in a different part of a bus, and it seems so strange, and I feel very confident in thinking that 30 years from now that is the strangeness with which our children, your children, my grandchildren, would look at this time, and think, “Wow that was really really strange that this was such a big deal. Why was this such a big deal?” I think it’s important that we advocate, because it is an issue of discrimination in my opinion. Now bringing it to her, I am worried that she was more of a quiet voice on that. I hope that she thinks about that hard. I also think throwing this to “it’s an issue for states to decide,” is a complete cop out in this case. That’s not the way that human rights are usually designated–usually that’s something that’s protected nationwide, and I would hope that we would come to see that in this case as well.”
Mrs. Carol Clark
On the apppointment of DeVos
“The problem with picking cabinet members is that you’ve got to know something of the background in what you’re being given, and she has never been a teacher. She’s never been in a school system where she was in the operational end. I keep hearing this business about universities and high schools are just like a business, and they aren’t, and when people think that way there are really unfortunate responses to that, because we don’t make widgets. We are a service. We teach people, so you don’t really see the product, but you can talk to the product, and if the products really understands and loves learning, then you’re in great shape. Hopefully our students, and over 90% of them do, go on to college. This is the future of this country–the educated kids that we send off to college, and they in turn go off to careers. But if you don’t understand that system, then how can you possibly run it the way it should be run? That’s what worries me. We’ve had so many government mistakes, where, in trying to do something good they end up doing something that just makes our job more difficult. No Child Left Behind did not work terribly well, it actually put roadblocks in the system. So, you know we need somebody in education to run our educational system, and that’s what really worries me. You can say something that sounds good from the top, where you’re not anywhere near a classroom or teachers, and then as it filters down through, it’s a horrendous boondoggle. There’s a basic disconnect from people like her who have no idea of how to run a school and the people that are in the operational stage. So if they’re not both educated in how to do this, it’s not going to work.”
On religion in public schools
“Separation of church and state, and I think that church and state should be separated. We’ve got a lot of people of a lot of different faiths. Granted, Lake Forest does not have the diversity that other schools have, but it has worked very well for this country to separate these two, and that’s how it should remain. What am I going to do in a classroom? If I’m teaching from a Catholic point of view, what about the kids who are Protestants? What about another student who is a Buddhist? What about a Middle Eastern young man or woman who may be Islamic? What are you going to do with that? And why should you? I’m not here to teach religion. My religion is my business, and it should not be foisted on anyone else, and I think the kids should have the freedom of being who they are, but also should not have the opportunity to put somebody else down who is of a different faith. I think that’s horrible. But at the same time, if you have a family of a certain faith, they can go to a school of that faith, so it’s not like you cannot have a religious education, it’s just that you don’t go to a state-funded school.”
On the reaction to Trump leaving bathroom laws up to states
“Yes. We have people that are not strictly heterosexual, we are the way we are. And worrying about bathrooms. Really? All you have to do is put doors on little cubicles and who cares? That’s what the French do, and it works very well indeed. Who cares? What I do care about is a person who is searching for who they are, and I don’t want them stigmatized by that. Because, quite frankly, I could care less who is in the next stall. You close the door. It was funny; when we were in France my husband did not know this, and he went, and he came running back out and he went ‘There are women in there,’ and I said ‘Well, of course.’ He got used to it. So, yeah, something like that. If somebody is really confident in a cabinet position, they’re going to know what is right, or hopefully they’re going to know what is right when they stand up to an issue like this. Because that was a huge step backwards, I think, in being an understanding and open country. So, she’s got to get her stuff together if she’s going to be successful.”