East Kentwood High School math teacher Luke Wilcox was among the nation’s top instructors who recently sat down with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to talk about issues in education, including their concerns with DeVos’ push for vouchers and school choice.
Wilcox, the 2017-2018 Michigan Teacher of the Year, was touring Washington, D.C., as part of State Teachers of the Year “Washington Week” programming. Teachers had the opportunity to meet with DeVos for 30 minutes at the U.S. Department of Education. At the end of the April 30 session, DeVos, who is from Holland, acknowledged the Michigan Teacher of the Year by inviting Wilcox to stand up.
“I used it as an opportunity to speak,” Wilcox said. “I was voicing my concern that when we talk about school choice, for some of the families we serve, that choice is not a real choice because there are other barriers in the way that prevent them from actually making that choice.”
DeVos, who was being ushered out of the room by aides, didn’t have a chance to respond, he said.
Wilcox said he was grateful DeVos gave them the chance to talk to her directly.
“She decided that instead of having it be a opportunity to talk to the group, she was going to listen,” Wilcox said. “I honestly really appreciated the fact that she was willing to listen. She had 55 of the best teachers in the country and she was willing to say, ‘Give me some feedback. I’m in charge of education in the United States and I’m willing to listen.’”
But he said DeVos did not ease anxiety among the teachers in regard to the detrimental impacts of school choice on communities.
“She didn’t directly address it, nor did she give ground on it at all,” he said. “She just went back to the rhetorical idea that we want the best opportunities for all of our students, which everyone can agree on. It’s important to note that both sides in the school choice issue want the best for all students. The question is how do we go about arriving at that?”
State Teachers of the Year include the 50 states plus American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Department of Defense Education Activities, District of Columbia and Guam. They brought different perspectives on a range of issues and concerns, Wilcox said. The teachers also visited White House, the vice president’s house, Capitol Hill and other D.C. landmarks.
‘The Elephant in the Room’
DeVos has been a controversial figure since taking office last year. Critics have cited her long-standing promotion of charter schools and vouchers while proposing sharp reductions in federal funding for areas such as after-school programs and teacher training. But conservatives have praised her strong push for school choice as a way of giving disadvantaged students an equal shot at a good education.
She was greeted by protesters last fall when she spoke to The Acton Institute, a Grand Rapids-based think tank. But dinner attendees applauded her message that “it is the inalienable right and responsibility of parents to choose the learning environment that best meets their child’s individual needs.”
At her meeting with the Teachers of the Year, Wilcox said he could sense one issue on everyone’s minds before it was raised.
“There was a certain amount of anxiety in the room. The elephant in the room, as most people know, is that Betsy DeVos’ current push in education is for vouchers and charter schools. We all sort of knew there was some disagreement (with DeVos) about school choice.”
‘It’s important to note that both sides in the school choice issue want the best for all students. The question is how do we go about arriving at that?’ — Luke Wilcox, 2017-18 Michigan Teacher of the Year
Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jon Hazell, speaking from the perspective of his state, said vouchers and schools of choice are hurting communities and disadvantaging certain students as a result. In response to his concern that charter and private schools are siphoning money from public schools, DeVos said “she wants to call all of it public education,” Hazell told the Tulsa World.
DeVos didn’t address Hazell’s concern, which led to a few back-and-forth exchanges, Wilcox said. “It changed the feeling in the room. You could feel the anxiety going up in the room.”
A few other teachers commented about the impact of school choice in their communities, he added.
“At one point I looked around the room and there were five teachers who were crying. I think you have a whole lot of heart in the teachers in that room, and some of them felt like this current initiative or movement for school choice is hurting some of their students and they take that very personally.”
Wilcox thinks of the issue in relation to Kentwood Public Schools, the most diverse district in the state according to the data analysis website Niche.
“I think about students at East Kentwood High School, and I know students and families in Kentwood who don’t have the resources or the advocacy skills to be able to choose the right school for their students. I fear that those families and students would be disadvantaged by this new system.”
Another concern is that introducing school choice and vouchers segregates schools.
“One of the beautiful things about Kentwood is how diverse we are and our community values that. Our community values that their kids go to school in a diverse setting.”
Editor’s note: What do you think? If you have an opinion about this story you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Bringing Experiences Back to Kentwood
Next fall, Wilcox is planning to return to East Kentwood to teach Algebra II and Advanced Placement Statistics and serve as a coach to other teachers. He will also help lead a new cohort of Rising Teacher Leaders, a program he started with English teacher Mike Traywick to support new teachers through mentorship.
He also is continuing to grow the Mastermind program, which brings area teacher leaders together to create great instructional practices, empower them and engage students in new ways. His partnership with Van Andel Education Institute is helping to foster the collaboration.
During his year as Michigan Teacher of the Year, Wilcox has delivered several keynote speeches at education conferences, led math trainings across the country and in Nicaragua, worked with pre-service teachers and created a Ted Talk.
Wilcox also joined the other State Teachers of the Year to tour Google headquarters in Mountain View, California; will spend a weekend with them at Princeton University, in New Jersey; and at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
He said it’s been an incredible year and he’s grateful for the opportunities to share his knowledge and grow as a teacher.
“I’m super-excited to be back with the colleagues and students at East Kentwood High School,” he said. “This year has been amazing and an incredible experience, but I miss my students and colleagues a lot.
“Definitely, I’ve grown in my leadership understanding abilities, and I’m hoping to bring some of those qualities and skill back to Kentwood.”