In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. Sandra Day O’Connor–Retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
There was a time, I can clearly recall when qualifications mattered. In fact, I was educated in an American public school system that insisted that being qualified was one of the most important factors in getting selected to perform tough tasks in life. It didn’t matter whether one was black, white, male or female. Religion didn’t matter. Sexual preference didn’t matter. What mattered was whether you met the qualifications to perform the job proficiently. Those qualifications were generally honed through years of on the job training and preparation. It seems as if that no longer matters as it did before.
A Sad And Dark History
As I watched the senate confirmation hearings for Betsy Devos, I was shaken to discover that Mrs. Devos could not answer any of the questions with a direct yes or no answer. She had little to no knowledge of the subject matter being asked. Yet, she was recommended to become the 11th United States Secretary of Education. A type of “social promotion,” Mrs. Devos literally failed the entire grueling testing process, yet she was confirmed by our United States Congress. For the thinking mind, this makes no sense at all. Seemingly, the trend of “paying your way” into high positions has become a commonplace in the American fabric.
What is most disturbing about this confirmation is that it deals with the blood stream of what helps to give all Americans participation at a higher level—education. While education alone does not serve as the great equalizer and neither does it erase sexism or racism, it does offer some solutions to the growing problem of inequalities in our country. However, those solutions may very well be stripped from our hands with a new administration that not only is unaware of the set rules of governance for this position, but has a clear agenda to uproot the seeds of progress and usher our country back into a dark and sad history.
A part of that history deals with the fact that although Harvard University began in 1636, it did not allow women to be matriculated until 200 years after its opening. Even after women began to become educated there were very few women that were admitted and they were often steered away from certain majors and white male dominated professions. Not until the 1980’s were women and men, for the first time, at equal numbers in terms of college attendance in the United States. Despite that, women were still paid significantly lower wages than men for performing the same jobs. Though we’ve made progress, proportionately speaking our progress has been a long and arduous one, and there’s still a long way to go.
Enslaved Africans and their offspring were forbidden to learn to read and write. By and large, black people were not being educated at any schools of higher learning until 1837 with the opening of Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically black college in Cheyney, PA. Primary education was almost non-existent from a public-school perspective until the early twentieth century. After meeting with Booker T. Washington in 1911, Julius Rosenwald a businessman and one of the owners of Sears Roebuck and Company, created a fund to improve the education of young blacks in the south.
Rosenwald did this by building schools in rural areas. By the time, he passed away in 1932, he had built more than 5,300 schools, helping to birth public education for black people in the southern states. Though this was a great accomplishment for black people, educational advancement has been a long and rocky road for people of color, having to survive and thrive through Jim Crow laws and an entire civil rights movement, during which time prevented black people from receiving an equal education under the law. Activist and author of Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, Jonathan Kozol has discovered that as of 2005, the proportion of Black students at majority-white schools was at “a level lower than in any year since 1968.” We’ve still not overcome.
The Confirmation Hearings of Betsy Devos
The progress that we believe we have made is slipping away and if we do not make a concerted effort to preserve the legacy that was fought for us, much more will be loss. This brings me to my concerns about Betsy Devos. Not only was she unprepared to answer the questions presented to her, the questions that were presented to her were basic, fundamental questions that any entry level educator should be well familiar with. When asked by Senator Al Franken about her positions on proficiency versus growth, she continued to seek clarification on the questions. She did not know what he was talking about. Yet, this argument is one of the most prevalent discussions in education today. Sadly, she didn’t understand and could not answer his question.
Devos refused to answer Senator Maggie Hassan’s questions on protecting students with disabilities. Devos somehow believes, from her own confession that there is equal treatment for students with disabilities and students without those challenges. Again, it is sad to realize that Devos has lived her entire life so sheltered from the reality of the real world that she didn’t know that there is a major difference in how children with disabilities have been historically and presently perceive by our system; which necessitates the laws for their protection to be in place and strictly enforced.
Senator Elizabeth Warren peeled back so many layers to uncover the truth that Devos has never controlled a trillion-dollar loan program. She never oversaw or managed a 30 Billion Dollar Pell Grant. She never ran or operated a bank. To make it more personal; Devos has never taken out a student loan in her life. Her children have never had a student loan. She has no experience with Pell Grants. But she did however admit that she has a few friends who actually has Pell Grants, so that she thought should qualify her for this position.
Devos would not affirm that she would commit to enforcing rules that would ensure that institutions would be cut off from receiving federal funds, if they were caught committing fraud and abuse. She merely said that she would look into it. Senator Tim Kaine exposed Devos’ beliefs about public schools, as Devos referred to them as “DEAD ENDS.” Dead ends! This is the person who was chosen to become the gatekeeper for public education in the United States, serving children and young adults of impoverished backgrounds as well as the middle class. Her only exposure is among private schools, on primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Her experience is having access to hundreds of millions of dollars, never having to consider the least of those in society.
Neither Devos or any of her children ever attended a public school in their lives. Yet, she was recommended to hold the highest position in the land which governs our K-12 and higher educational systems. Something is fundamentally wrong with this picture. This is a sign that we are in big trouble. Senator Bernie Sanders, cut right to the chase with his discovery, that the main reason that she was even considered had nothing to do with education or her love for America’s children and young people. It was because of a 9-million-dollar donation to the Trump campaign. In fact, her family has collectively given more than 200 million dollars to the GOP. That is major purchasing power.
One Collective Voice
If money can buy positions of which you are not qualified, what else can money buy? The one thing that the poor and middle must realize is that while we may not have billions of dollars to bolster our position, we do have something of greater value, if we use it—our voice. And our voice is not for sale. We can no longer sit idly by and just hope that the “right thing” gets done. Now is the time to watch, to monitor, and to demand what we desire to see happen in our educational system.
There is an underlying agenda to undo the progress that our system has gained over the past 62 years since Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954, the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975. We have a voice and it’s time for us to use it. Money may have purchased many recent political positions but money cannot stop the powerful force of our collective voice.
Here are a few simple things you can do to exercise you rights and to stay abreast: 1. Google Betsy Devos and the U.S. Department of Education every day to find out what’s going on. You must know what is being done in this administration to confront it with competence 2. Call or write your Congressman or Congresswoman to ask them how can they help to ensure the protection of your rights. This is their job and they will be willing to work for you, if you make it known. 3. Recruit your friends and family members to do the same. There is power in numbers. These simply yet powerful actions will go a long way in sending a message to this administration that our children and their lives are far more valuable than money and that our children are not for sale. And remember, being qualified still matters.
Dr. Aaron Lewis 3/10/17
Antigua and Barbuda