Blocking DeVos’ School Visit: An Overdue Lesson in Access

Access to education starts at the building-level, but it also extends far past that.
Protestors just outside Jefferson Middle School Academy in D.C. Credit: Maria Danilova / AP

Protestors just outside Jefferson Middle School Academy in D.C. Credit: Maria Danilova / AP

This morning, Betsy DeVos was briefly blocked from entering Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington. Though she eventually entered, and though one person was also arrested, the importance of this event extends beyond protestors versus authority figure. The act is a lesson in access for DeVos and other privileged Americans. Specifically, in access to education. This access has been continually denied to non-white students across the country, throughout our history. The opposition DeVos met this morning was a polite lesson in what it means to be prevented from participating in education.

The corridors of power were eager to respond. An hour after the event, Kellyanne Conway tweeted,

This, a demonstrably privileged comment to make. At best, it represents how foreign the notion of access to education seems for the privileged America she represents. For Conway, and many who have access to high-quality education — solely because of where they can afford to live — DeVos not entering a school is an affront to privilege: why shouldn’t she enter, they ask, while ignoring her incompetence in education. Its her job, after all, to promote and improve American education. Let her do it, right? But privilege — and misunderstanding — prevents this point of view from seeing what’s really underneath the entire ordeal: DeVos is mediocrity, uninterrupted. Her beliefs aren’t productive, and she doesn’t even have a degree in education. That’s the reason her path was blocked.

I’ve already written about her lack of credentials, but at stake today was something even more fundamental than those: access. For DeVos and the presidency she represents, this is more than politics. Her candidacy affects, lest we forget, the entirety of America’s youngest demographics. In the US, access to high-quality education has always been an issue, one framed as a privilege, not a right. Today’s protestors raised that point once again, this time, by making DeVos feel what being prevented from access — at least partially, and non-systemically — feels like.

The protest may seem like a slap in the face for some Republicans, but it successfully encapsulates issues of race and social class that have become too pervasive in today’s America. Both of these factors continue to influence whether or not students receive a quality education; a large part of that quality is dictated by funding.

As EdBuild demonstrates, education funding is outdated, arbitrary, and segregating. At the same time, though, it continues to dictate academic achievement. DeVos may have been blocked from entering, and this may seem like a partisan affront against her confirmation, but what about the hundreds of thousands of students who are systemically blocked from a quality education every year?

Disparities in funding block these students from quality teachers and schools, but outrage over that is typically assigned to professors and social critics to complain about. Today, we were reminded that all of us should be outraged. Quality public education is still the only way, I believe, to build generations of successful Americans. Persisting otherwise, wrapping ourselves up in silly arguments of school choice and vouchers, will continue to deny some students the democratic right that is an education. School choice isn’t a marker of democracy; it’s simply an idea predicated and sold on that tantalizing myth. But it neglects the fact that for many, arguments about education are more than talking points. They define futures, literally. That’s the subject DeVos and her staff, Conway and President Trump, should be debating. Proffering a myth of school choice and vouchers, of democratic education and feel-good citizenship achieves nothing.

Writ large, America is still an inherently segregated nation when it comes to school funding. Consider the 50 “fault line” school districts across the nation. These are “America’s most segregating district borders.” On one side, a wealthy district. On the other, an impoverished one. On one side, a district with access. On the other, one that’s continually marginalized, that’s continually left with inadequate and sometimes unsafe buildings and resources. It’s no surprise that wealthy districts continually outperform impoverished ones, but what should be surprising is that America continues to deny these students access to quality education. That, simply, is an affront to a human right. The narrative DeVos met today was a polite lesson in this access, a lesson she may never think about again during her career, but one that raises questions of funding, access, and just how powerful their synergy is.

If we persist as a nation that prides itself on education, we ought to investigate just how problematic its funding has always been. This is the same issue today’s protestors represented. But we’ll only renew today’s success by making this conversation a national one. I’d like to see funding public schools as the first issue on DeVos’ agenda, because we’ve pressed her to make it so. I’ll always persist it’s the most rudimentary one, and still, the most important.

George Goga is an English major training to teach literature. He writes on fashion, education, literature, and what happens when the three are combined.

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