Means over ends in schools

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID VON DREHLE david.von­drehle@wash­post.com

When Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos paid a visit to Kansas City Academy on Fri­day, there were more pro­test­ers out­side than stu­dents in­side. Per­haps 150 peo­ple, in­clud­ing some alumni of the pri­vate school, en­joyed a fine late- sum­mer morn­ing while hoist­ing hand­made signs for the TV cam­eras. Some plac­ards de­nounced the sec­re­tary’s sup­port for vouch­ers, a long-stand­ing cause for the bil­lion­aire ac­tivist. Oth­ers dis­ap­proved of her de­ci­sions to re­scind Obama-era guid­ance on gen­der-neu­tral re­strooms and cam­pus sex­ual-as­sault poli­cies. More light-hearted were the signs tweak­ing DeVos for say­ing guns in the class­room can pro­tect stu­dents in the ru­ral West from griz­zly bears.

DeVos was near­ing the end of her week-long “Re­think Schools” tour, which took her to di­verse class­rooms across six states, some pub­lic, some pri­vate, all in­no­va­tive. To her credit, she did not limit her­self to the sort of schools where a con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian from the Trump administration could rely on a friendly re­cep­tion — even though such places would be easy to find in the Western and Mid­west­ern states she vis­ited.

Kansas City Academy is def­i­nitely not among them. The col­lege prepara­tory school en­rolls just 76 stu­dents in grades six to 12 and works won­ders with cre­ative, in­tel­li­gent kids who have trou­ble fit­ting in at larger schools. Heavy em­pha­sis on arts, the en­vi­ron­ment and so­cial jus­tice makes it an at­trac­tive op­tion for pro­gres­sive fam­i­lies. School lunches are farm-to-ta­ble.

News that DeVos had asked to pay a visit “shocked and scared” the Academy com­mu­nity, a re­cent grad­u­ate, Megan En­nis, told me: “Scared of some­one com­ing in the school who dis­agrees with just about ev­ery­thing they be­lieve.” Bath­rooms at the Academy, for ex­am­ple, are trans-friendly, En­nis said. One stu­dent an­nounced she would stay home rather than share space with “a de­mon.” Oth­ers de­cided to dec­o­rate the school with posters that re­flect the school’s in­clu­sive spirit.

Se­nior Elly Martinez cap­tioned hers: “I am the gay witch the Chris­tians warned you about.”

But as she pinched out a clay pot in the ce­ram­ics room and whipped up a veg­gie burger in the culi­nary room, DeVos was a liv­ing re­minder that peo­ple who dis­agree about some things don’t have to dis­agree on ev­ery­thing. DeVos agrees pas­sion­ately with one of the found­ing con­cepts of Kansas City Academy and the other schools around the coun­try that prac­tice “Ex­pe­di­tionary Learn­ing.” That is: Not all stu­dents learn in the same way or thrive in the same set­tings. This re­al­iza­tion has sparked in­no­va­tion in schools over the past gen­er­a­tion. But it poses ob­vi­ous chal­lenges to tra­di­tional pub­lic schools that group stu­dents by ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries rather than in­di­vid­ual needs.

DeVos painted a grim pic­ture of those schools in a speech in Wy­oming at the start of her tour. “Most stu­dents are start­ing a new school year that is all too fa­mil­iar,” she said. “Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher stand­ing in front of the room, framed by a black­board. They dive into a cur­ricu­lum writ­ten for the ‘av­er­age’ stu­dent. They fol­low the same sched­ule, the same rou­tine — just wait­ing to be saved by the bell. It’s a mun­dane malaise that damp­ens dreams, dims hori­zons and de­nies fu­tures.”

Tiger Baker, a se­nior at Kansas City Academy, would agree with her about that. Be­fore he trans­ferred as a sopho­more, Baker at­tended a nearby pub­lic school pop­u­lated with “kids whose par­ents couldn’t af­ford a good school,” he told me af­ter the visit. The school “was mon­i­tored like a prison,” staffed by “over­whelmed” teach­ers, and had “no room for cre­ativ­ity. I was al­ways get­ting in trou­ble,” he said.

DeVos fin­ished her 90-minute visit by an­swer­ing ques­tions from stu­dents in gov­ern­ment class, where she made a warm im­pres­sion on stu­dents who had found her mean and for­bid­ding on YouTube. Baker said that “she was per­son­ally nice, re­spect­ful — kind of a mom thing. I loved be­ing able to talk to her per­son­ally.” When he asked the sec­re­tary why she chose his school to visit, DeVos replied that she ad­mired the school’s ap­proach to nur­tur­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

The rub, of course, is tu­ition and school fees: more than $12,000.

Fifty years ago, Kansas City Pub­lic Schools en­rolled more than 70,000 stu­dents. To­day, at­ten­dance is about one­fifth of that. Par­ents with the money or other where­withal to es­cape those schools have gone, leav­ing the district to strug­gle as provider of last re­sort. And that’s a far more dif­fi­cult as­sign­ment, frankly, than even the trans­for­ma­tional work done by schools such as Kansas City Academy.

It comes down to that last co­hort, who have large needs but min­i­mal re­sources. Crit­ics of DeVos would spend more even as pub­lic schools fail stu­dents such as Baker. The sec­re­tary would rather give a voucher to par­ents and let them shop for a bet­ter fit.

The dif­fer­ence is means, not ends.

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