An Open Letter to the Secretary of Education, Besty DeVos

An offering of advice for the current United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in contemplation of her lack of direction concerning the fast approaching school year and the expanding coronavirus pandemic…

by: Bonnie Wilkins Overcott

Dear Mrs. DeVos,

I watched your latest interview on CNN Sunday, Madam Secretary, and I found it entirely unnerving.

The thing is, it is clear you lack a plan for our nation’s schools, and we need to talk about that. You’re a little younger in age than me, so I thought I’d give you some career advice, as it is more than obvious you could use it. A large part of my professional life was spent as the Human Resources representative in my company. I wrote a blog, Working in the 21st Century, for a few years, concerning work-related issues. We’ve led very different lives, you and I, yet we’re also very similar. We’re both women for starters, trying to make it in a world that tends to discount women as they age. (Don’t let anyone do that to you, by the way.) My family never adorned the Forbes wealthiest family list, like yours. My father, in fact, believed a million dollars was a lot of money. His family came from the Netherlands, just like yours, and attended the Dutch Christian Reformed Church for a time, so our values might be very much the same. Core values, I believe, are important in life and on the job.

I must admit, I wholeheartedly agree with you — we absolutely need to get our children back into school for a myriad of reasons. The thing is though, it is abundantly clear you lack a strategy for accomplishing this safely. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to always have a plan. A plan with goals and deadlines will aid you when you lobby for raises and promotions. It’s also how you and others can measure your on-the-job effectiveness. 

You are aware, I assume, that, unlike well-funded private schools, where tuition averages $11,004 per year and up to $62,000 for elite boarding schools, public schools operate on a shoe-string budget.  

I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of teachers having to purchase, out of their own pockets, which aren’t as deep as yours, the supplies needed to do their job. Before the coronavirus pandemic, a school near my church, Crosstown Covenant, found itself in need of some basic supplies. Copy machine and printer paper, Kleenex, pencils, Lysol wipes, and markers were in short supply. Now that Covid-19 has taken hold I’m sure you can imagine how their needs have increased. How will schools pay to ensure the air is being properly circulated? How many public schools have state-of-the art filtration systems? If there was not enough in school education budgets before coronavirus for Lysol wipes, imagine the shortfall that will appear come this fall. More janitorial staff will be needed to properly sterilize desks, chairs and surfaces regularly. Every school will need a paid nurse. The financial burdens befalling these already financially stretched schools will only continue to multiply. 

I’m sure, Madam Secretary, you will come up with an even more comprehensive list of needs to keep our children, our future, healthy and strong. Schools, in every state, have parents who can’t afford to buy enough food for their family, so money will need to come from other sources to subsidize this. Public schools don’t have endowments to dip into to upgrade air flow systems, for example, like many private schools possess.

Those most at risk in these uncertain times are poor children. We already know that people of color are disproportionately getting sick and dying from Covid-19. Low income people are the least likely to have computers or high-speed Internet in their homes. Often their parents don’t have jobs that allow them to work at home. This would be an ideal time to re-imagine our education system so that all children have equal access to the highest quality of education in the world. As the former chair of the All Children Matter PAC, this would tie in nicely with the mood of the country. Since you are now Secretary of Education, instead of focusing on private, Christian schools like you have in the past, think what a legacy you could leave if you started an “All Children Matter” program for public schools.

My next piece of advice is to always be honest on the job. I’m fully aware that sometimes people have news for their boss that makes them angry, but it is your job to give him or her all the information needed to help them succeed. No one wants to be blindsided because their employees didn’t share bad news. When your boss knows they can always trust you, you become a more valuable employee.  

Sometimes a boss will request that you do something unethical, immoral, or illegal.  You must refuse. Think of a way to diplomatically refuse. Tell him or her, “That’s illegal, and I wouldn’t want to do anything that could cause you trouble.” Or, “If I lie for you, then you’ll never know if I’d lie to you.” Or more specifically in your particular case, “If we risk the lives of our children and some of them die, it will negatively affect your ratings and chance to win re-election.” Always refuse in a way that tells your boss they can trust you and that you are protecting their backside.

Keep a list of facts when you present your education plan. Dr. Oz stated that we may be fine with up to 3% of our children dying from Covid-19. That’s about 1.5 million children across our public schools alone. Remind your boss that your pro-life plan would prevent that, and make your boss seem smarter than a doctor. See how easy it is?

Also, get help developing your plan. Set up a committee of experts to research the needs and risks of opening our schools as well as the associated costs and time needed to readying our schools. Perhaps the nation’s fifty governors can appoint someone to work with you so that each state’s unique needs are met.  

You are known as a prolific fundraiser. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could start a fund for all your wealthy family and friends to donate to to pay for fixing up our nation’s public schools? It would save taxpayers their hard-earned money during these tough economic times. Your boss wouldn’t have to ask Speaker Pelosi for money. Maybe you could ask really wealthy people, like your brother Erik Prince, founder of the infamous Blackwater USA, to upgrade one school. It would be a way of repaying taxpayers for the billions they gave him to outsource our nation’s military functions. If you pick a school named after a Confederate, who knows, the school board might be so grateful they’d rename it after the donor. Your boss could brag that it isn’t costing taxpayers a dime.

Once you have the plan, present it to the boss. Let him think it’s his idea. After all, he hired you, a truly brilliant and competent Secretary of Education. For that, he should get the credit.

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