Dear Tom (if I may),
I hope you had a restful and celebratory Thanksgiving with friends and family. Like my children, I had a few days off, and we hosted my husband’s parents from Minnesota. Like many families who gathered for the holidays, we spent part of our time together in lively conversation. One of the subjects we talked about was education.
President-elect Trump has been releasing his selections for major leadership posts in his administration and we were all very interested to learn that he has chosen Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. Both my husband’s family and mine used to live in DeVos’s home state of Michigan and we still have lots of family there. We also come out of the same religious tradition as the DeVos family—a tradition that strongly values private religious education. I understand and feel the force of the argument for letting families use vouchers to pay for private schools or charter schools. There is a strong tradition in America of private religious schools offering high-quality education to a diverse range of students. Shouldn’t all children have access to that kind of education if that’s what their families want? My oldest child attends a private religious school and I am grateful for the opportunity to make that choice.
But I also have close ties to public education. My two younger children attend our excellent local public school. My father served several terms on the school board in a rural school district in Wisconsin not dissimilar to some in western New York. And when I look out my door and down the street, the evidence is everywhere of how our local school binds our community together. From my front porch, I can see six homes that are occupied by people who are employed in or retired from the public-school system. In rural communities like mine where there are only a few industries, the public school is a major employer as well as a source of “social capital” (if you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend Robert Putnam’s excellent book: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community). In the past decade, our community voted to raise local taxes so that we could add a beautiful auditorium onto our school—a facility that we proudly use for plays and concerts. A local church holds services there, too.
I can see why options like voucher programs and charter schools might be helpful for children and families in districts with poor public schools—where children don’t have access to high-quality education. Or they might make sense in urban areas where there are lots of different choices for schools and healthy competition for students could help schools be their best. But the educational reforms that work for cities might not be right for rural areas with low population. Our local public school is one of the best things my community has going for it; I’m worried about any initiative that might take resources from this school.
So at the national level, I would urge you to work with your Democratic and Republican colleagues to think practically, rather than ideologically, about education reform. If an initiative makes sense for your largely rural 23rd district, don’t dismiss it because it’s coming from the other side of the aisle. If we’re heading into another shift in education policy at the national level, I hope that you’ll advocate for rural districts and make sure that districts like mine that are already strong, stay that way. Or that you’ll work on solutions for rural districts that need a boost.
I’ve been hoping to hear back from you. This is my third letter to you in as many weeks but I’ve only received an email auto-reply. I see that you’ve been busy passing the “Midnight Rule Relief Act of 2016.” Next week I’m probably going to ask you whether that was a good use of your time.
Keep in touch,