Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Since 1907
Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Betsy DeVos has done more harm than good to America’s public education system

Calvin University recently announced its two recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award. Janne Ritskes, a 1980 graduate, received the award for her lifetime work in serving the people of Cambodia.”

The other recipient, 1979 graduate Betsy DeVos, has garnered backlash for receiving this award due to her time as secretary of education. She worked in this position despite her lack of experience with public schools. According to the National Education Association (NEA), “she has never been a teacher, a school administrator, nor served on any public board of education.”

On her website, DeVos describes herself as “the nation’s leading advocate for education freedom for students of all ages.” However, during her run as the eleventh United States Secretary of Education from 2017 to 2021 — during the Trump administration — DeVos rolled back important school programs that protected students’ rights.

During her time with the Trump administration, DeVos sought to privatize public schools. According to the NEA, she “has consistently pushed to expand federal vouchers that [would] take money from public schools to give to private schools.” She and President Trump “proposed to cut education spending by $8.5 billion in 2020, eliminating more than two dozen programs that help public schools, including teacher development, academic support and enrichment, and after-school activities,” according to the NEA. 

An article from TIME notes how under DeVos’s leadership, the Department of Education “rescinded guidance outlining the rights of students with disabilities as part of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).” While the department claimed that the parts rescinded were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective” so that students wouldn’t be affected, Thomas Hehir –– who supervised IDEA’s implementation back in the 1990s –– argued that parts of the act that the department rescinded helped offer necessary clarifications to school districts and states. According to NBC News, DeVos’s proposal for an at least seven billion dollar cut to education programs included “a 26 percent reduction to state grants for special education and millions of dollars in cuts to programs for students who are blind.”

In 2017, DeVos drew back sexual assault guidelines and weakened protections against sexual harassment and assault protected by Title IX. Many educators spoke out against DeVos’s proposed changes to Title IX, arguing that these changes could lead to sexual assault being ignored on school campuses. 

According to TIME, the Department of Education under DeVos –– along with the Department of Justice –– rescinded guidelines that allowed trans students to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity, a move that many argued could negatively affect trans youth. 

The New York Times reported that in June 2017, the Department of Education scaled back investigations into civil rights violations at public schools and universities. In August 2017, Politico reported that “DeVos’ Education Department has closed more than 1,500 civil rights complaints at the nation’s schools — including dismissing more than 900 outright.”

According to NPR, in 2018, DeVos rescinded 2014 guidance that aimed to protect students of color from what the Obama administration referred to as “discriminatory discipline.” This guidance spearheaded by the Obama administration “had encouraged schools to use alternatives to suspension and expulsion and came with a threat: If a school district’s discipline patterns revealed significant racial disparities, it could face a federal civil rights investigation.”

DeVos has a decades-long legacy of promoting her “school choice” beliefs in her home state of Michigan. According to Politico, both DeVos and her husband claimed in 1999 that school choice would “fundamentally improve education.” However, Politico claims that despite “two decades of charter-school growth” in Michigan, the state’s academic progress in 2016 ranked near the bottom for fourth-grade and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test. Overall, Michigan charter schools also scored lower on the national test than the state’s public schools. 

Even people who’ve caused great harm to people can also be the doers of good things. The question is, does the good outweigh the bad?

As someone who has gone to private school for all her life, I am not saying that all private institutions are awful and that they should no longer exist. However, DeVos does not simply promote private schools, but she lifts them up while pushing public schools down. Public schools educate most of the American population. We cannot afford to have a poorly funded public education system, especially when public schools have historically had more programs set up for lower-income children, as well as children with physical, mental and intellectual disabilities. This is not to say that DeVos has done no good in her time working in the field of education. Even people who’ve caused great harm to people can also be the doers of good things. The question is, does the good outweigh the bad? DeVos has helped many private schools in financial distress, and she resigned after the January 6 riots, but these acts do not erase the damage she has caused to so many groups of students — along with public schools in general — during her time as secretary of education. With this in mind, I have no qualms in saying that when we look back at DeVos’s term as Secretary of Education, many will remember the programs and protection she took away from students.

When thinking of the countless students impacted by DeVos’s legislation, I think of the person I consider my number-one source of inspiration: my mom, who has been a public educator for 27 years. She spent many years at the same Illinois elementary school, teaching fourth and fifth grade. Five years ago, she moved to a middle school, where she now teaches seventh-grade English and geography.

My mom’s job is not simply to teach kids. Like teachers all over the world, she makes an effort to form connections with her students, to check in with students who don’t have a family that supports them, to provide them with the resources they need for intellectual and emotional support and to remind each of her students, every single day, of how they are all worthy of great things. She points students in need towards the many programs that her middle school offers, whether that includes special education, counseling or free meals. She does her best to make sure all of her students’ needs are accounted for.

Every time I’m with my family in public, a random teenager I’ve never met before screams, “Mrs. Hirner! Hi!” before giving my mom a big hug, I’m reminded of how many lives my mom has positively impacted. My mom has inspired students to follow their dreams and believe in themselves, and she has spent over two decades equipping children with the tools they need to succeed.

In addition to hosting thousands of teachers like my mom, who dedicate their lives to positively empowering students as well as educating them, public schools in America offer millions of children resources they need that will act as a steady foundation for their lives. These resources include books, free meals, before and after-school care programs, access to technology and many more. Education is a necessary foundation for a healthy and purposeful life, and public education makes this foundation an option for many families who cannot afford to spend money on their children’s education.

Perhaps if DeVos immersed herself in the world of public education, she would realize how necessary the many programs and protections the schools offer are. Perhaps she would have thought twice before endangering vulnerable groups of students, including victims of sexual assault, students with disabilities, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, lower-income students who depend on free programs through the public school system and countless other students, parents, teachers and staff who she has harmed with her policies.

Calvin should not be awarding years of wrongdoings to America’s youth and our public education system.

Calvin may be a private institution. Calvin is not responsible for the negative impacts DeVos has had on public education. However, Calvin needs to be held accountable. By awarding DeVos with the Distinguished Alumni Award, they put her on a pedestal. In the promotional video they made for the award, Calvin paints DeVos as a champion for education. This risks glamorizing DeVos’s time as secretary of education, thus delegitimizing the damage she has inflicted on so many American students and educators. 

Calvin should not be celebrating DeVos. Calvin should not be awarding years of wrongdoings to America’s youth and our public education system. Distinguished shouldn’t refer to people like DeVos. Distinguished should refer to the thousands of teachers who dedicate time outside of their working hours to help teach their students. Teachers who go to their students’ basketball games and school musicals. Teachers who reach out to students’ parents to make sure their students are getting the support they need. 

Teachers like my mom are the people we should recognize as distinguished, not people like DeVos who have taken away student protections when they said they would strengthen them.

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  • D

    Dr. Robert BlokDec 8, 2023 at 12:06 pm

    Another anti-conservative commentary against a distinguished Calvin graduate. As Calvin College states that they ‘promote open debate and free speech on campus,’ this is only reminiscent of the two-page ad that Calvin’s faculty and students paid for in the GR Press when they were protesting the appearance of President George Bush on campus. So much for Calvin’s ‘free speech.’ It’s free only when it agrees with the leftist liberal rhetoric.
    Dr. Robert J. Blok, Sr.
    Calvin College, BA 1965

    • R

      Ruth HartlingDec 30, 2023 at 11:36 am

      You seem to want to silence this student who disagrees with you. That’s an odd understanding of free speech.

  • J

    John WalcottNov 14, 2023 at 8:05 am

    Thank you, Liana, for your work on this and for sharing your perspective. I agree wholeheartedly that, for the reasons you present and others, giving this award to Betsy DeVos is a poor reflection on Calvin’s values and commitments.