The Commonality between Biden’s Education Secretary and Betsy Devos is a WarningRoundup
tags: education, education reform, inequality, Department of Education, Miguel Cardona
A world of difference separates President Biden’s nominee for secretary of education from the previous secretary, Betsy DeVos. DeVos infamously proved herself unaware of and even largely uninterested in the realities of public education. Miguel Cardona, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday, was a public school student, teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and state-level education leader. His children attend public school. He lives and breathes the challenges and opportunities of public education.
Yet in one vital aspect, the two leaders agree, and their agreement is part of the reason that public schools have never lived up to Americans’ inflated expectations.
Even though DeVos never was a firm supporter of public schools, she never doubted the importance of education policy. As she put it in late 2020, education policy “will either break our already fragile economy, or it will unleash an age of achievement and prosperity the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
Cardona agrees that education policy should be front and center in the United States. In his speech accepting his nomination by Biden, for example, he noted that public education can serve as the “great equalizer.” While it doesn’t always succeed, good education policy can make public schools authentic “places of innovation” that have the power to heal the country’s social and economic woes. In Cardona’s eyes, education can solve the problems that bedevil cities, allow low-income Americans to move up and even bridge the racial divide.
Cardona and DeVos are not unique in this regard. By telling people what they want to hear — that we can solve social problems quickly and cheaply through school reform — leaders have long derailed attempts to address the complex causes of social inequality. Even if they do not intend to, leaders who promise too much for school reform end up downplaying the true difficulties of improving society.
The pattern is as old as public education itself. The roots of public education in the United States, at least in larger cities, lie in the first decades of the 1800s. City leaders were aghast at the crowds of children left out of the limited number of tuition-free schools. Cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore had not yet begun the explosive growth they would experience beginning in the 1840s, but the elite at the time were already alarmed at the numbers of children in the streets.
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