The Heart of It All

by Jenni Benson, NSEA President

I taught high schoolers the past two years but I am an elementary school teacher at heart. No matter where or what I teach, I’ve found that there isn’t much difference in the teacher-student-learning equation.

The heart of teaching is always in the relationships we, as teachers, build with our students.

Growing up, I didn’t think there was much substance in the relationships I had with my teachers. My home life was chaotic, a fact that I believed my teachers seldom, if ever, knew. And yet, as I look back, I have a much better understanding and perspective. I realize that my home life was not all that different from the home life of many students with whom teachers work every day. My appreciation for my teachers and the importance of the relationships they built with their students has grown exponentially.

Recently, I joined in a celebration of public schools as a counterpoint to the Nebraska visit of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos is an advocate for the privatization of and profiteering from our public schools using voucher and charter school schemes. Her visit was a powerful reminder of the need for positive relationships as we stand against charter and voucher schemes.

Just a Glimpse

I did not get to express my thoughts directly to the Secretary. In fact, three of her four stops in Nebraska were at private or parochial institutions. That was largely the tenor of her entire “Rethink Schools Tour.” While DeVos’ itinerary was closely guarded, reports indicate she made visits to six states with two-thirds of her stops at private or parochial or charter schools of some kind.

My message to DeVos is simple. It echoes what I voiced at a celebration of public schools held on the second day of the DeVos visit to Nebraska.

At the celebration, I noted that DeVos had experienced just a glimpse of the great teaching and learning – and the exciting innovation – taking place in Nebraska’s excellent public schools.

I hope that DeVos left Nebraska with an appreciation of the quality education that can go on public schools that do not have to deal with the distraction and funding drains of charter schools and voucher schemes.

It is important that DeVos – and our current in-state policymakers – understand that Nebraska parents and students already have school choice. Those choices range from our public focus schools to career academies to choosing to attend any public school in any district in the state. (In fact, last school year, 22,148 Nebraska public school students used their option enrollment choice.)

NSEA and other Nebraska public school advocates support opportunities for all students, regardless of background or place of residence. The chances a child has for success should not depend on winning a charter lottery, affording private school, or living in the right ZIP code.

If we’re serious about every child’s future, let’s get serious about doing what works. Let us concentrate on:

  • Providing the resources our neighborhood public schools need, so students have the support they need;
  • Providing more one-on-one attention to students;
  • Offering inviting classrooms; and
  • Making a well-rounded curriculum available to every student in every discipline.  

Charter Failures

If DeVos were paying attention, she would know that Nebraskans do not need, nor do we want, our public tax dollars to be spent on private schools.

In most states, charter schools are managed by for-profit, out-of-state corporations that put profits ahead of student well-being and classroom learning. Instead of putting these tax dollars into classrooms where they belong, some of these companies make millions of dollars off taxpayers.

Independent studies show a number of charter schools have failed to perform, wasted taxpayer dollars and diverted needed funding from public schools. A 2015 report by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools found that fraud and mismanagement by charter schools cost taxpayers more than $200 million in just 15 states.

The Nurturing Link

To help children in under-performing schools, we need not line the pockets of the already wealthy who invest in corporate schools. Instead, we must ensure that taxpayer dollars are invested in public schools to allow for the innovation that DeVos claims to embrace.

We know that innovation enhances quality and opportunity in public education – and that educators are the force that drives creative solutions.  We know what works in the classroom, and we take seriously our responsibility to nurture every student.

“Nurture” links back to the relationships that I believe are so important in teaching and learning.

I hope that Secretary DeVos learned how and why Nebraska is doing it right. I hope she took careful notes about what works. This I know: the public school approach, the learning, the caring and the relationships, will always work better than the hard sell of a top-down, make-money-off-our-kids scheme being pushed by DeVos. At the heart of the matter, it’s a scheme Nebraskans are not buying.