In the swirl of furor surrounding Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education last week, many folks posted their public education pedigrees on social media, calling attention to the importance of public schools as a woman who never attended one steps into the role of leading education for our country.
Like so many who posted throughout the week, I am a product of public schools. But it’s important to recognize that, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, two students both educated in public schools can still have entirely unequal experiences.
I had the privilege to attend public schools that helped shape me, challenge me, and prepare me for the world. But privilege is the operative word there. Here’s why:
- Location: Before I was born, my parents built a house in the suburbs on land that had been in my father’s family for generations. Although my parents both worked in Baton Rouge, the city’s school district was ranked among the worst in the state, and they wanted better for the family they were planning. My father’s family land just happened to be in one of the highest-performing school districts in the state, so problem solved… at least for me. Many parents don’t have the luxury to relocate into districts with better-performing schools, and an over-reliance on testing and pay-for-performance has only funneled funds away from the schools that need it most. Coupled with school funding structures that draw predominantly from local tax bases (privileging wealthier communities), the inequity in the system is only reinforced year after year.
- Literacy: When I was a child, my parents read to me. A lot. My grandparents and aunt read to me. My room was filled with books. Even before I stepped foot in a classroom, the adults around me invested time in nurturing my curiosity and learning.
- Language and Culture: My parents both spoke English as their first language, so I never had to live in one world at school and another at home. The culture modeled in my home fit with what my teachers expected of me and fit with what I saw represented in most popular media.
- Stability and Security: Throughout my childhood, my parents were married, in good health, and employed by the same company. We never moved from the home they’d built in the suburbs. Those constants in my life meant my education never suffered because of emotional or financial difficulty at home.
- Flexibility: My parents were able to adjust their work schedules to meet with my teachers, chaperone field trips, or attend choir concerts and basketball games. They could spend time discussing my homework with me or shuffling through the forms to help me make the best decisions about my academic future.
- Role Models: For the majority of my time in school, I learned from people who looked like me, almost entirely white women. The history lessons I learned emphasized the achievements of mostly white men (and minimized their misdeeds). The writers I read in English were predominantly white. Seeing people like me represented in all facets of my life shaped my perception of where I fit in the world and what I could become.
- Tenure: Most of my teachers were seasoned professionals who had been in the schools I attended for many years. News of a teacher leaving one of my schools made waves, compared to more poorly-resourced schools where turnover is a regular occurrence and students are often learning from teachers with less experience.
- Extracurriculars: During the summers, I attended nature, space, drama, art, creative writing, and history camps and programs, keeping my mind engaged and giving me opportunities to explore a variety of interests outside of the classroom.
- Expanded Options: In tenth grade, my parents jumped through hoops for the sake of my education. Although we still lived in the suburbs, I transferred to a magnet school in Baton Rouge. At this school, routinely recognized as one of the top in the country, my teachers demanded and inspired my best, and the range of class offerings–including philosophy, logic, yoga, and journalism–let me explore new subjects and different ways of thinking. Transferring from a school where nearly 90% of my classmates were white to one where fewer than half were white also expanded my conception of the world beyond the suburb where I lived, and for the first time in my education, I regularly had teachers of races and nationalities different from mine.
- College Access: Both of my parents had college degrees, and attending college was a foregone conclusion as I was growing up. I attended an out-of-state public university, and, thanks to the strong test prep and tutoring offered at my high school, I qualified for a scholarship, enabling me to graduate debt-free. My older brother lived in town, so even though I was far from home, I had a built-in support system throughout college.
- Connections: I pursued a journalism degree and worked at the college newspaper all four years I was in school. Because my parents both worked as journalists as well, they helped connect me to internship opportunities back home each summer, and I graduated with a dream job offer.
So, yes, I am a product of public schools, but it is not as simple as that. I am also a product of privilege, even if that privilege doesn’t look like an elite prep school and an Ivy League degree.
I appreciate the outpouring of public school pride in the past week, but if you’re a product of public schools, consider what privilege surrounded your success that others may not have had access to.
I’m no public education expert, so I don’t have reforms to offer. All I can share is my own experience and the long process it has taken for me to recognize the magnitude of the privilege that shaped that experience. Betsy DeVos is not taking the helm of an education system that’s just been humming along fine and dandy for everyone involved. She is taking the helm of an education system that has not been set up to help every child succeed. She is taking the helm of an education system that, as long as inequality exists outside the classroom, will always leave some children behind.