It would be really unfortunate if anyone got the idea that Betsy DeVos is not a fan of public schools. Do some of her choices underscore an anti-public school bias? “That is not the case,” one of her harried staffers explained Wednesday.
The staffer and DeVos were at a not-public school in Far Rockaway on Wednesday. In fact, they were at a private Orthodox school called Yeshiva Darchei Torah, the second private Orthodox institution the secretary visited in NYC in as many days. DeVos did not visit a public school on her first visit to the city as the nation’s titular educator in chief, skipping out on the million-plus students educated there.
There are aspects of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, which serves some 2,200 male students from nursery past high school, that are just like any school in the five boroughs. There are the math quizzes on the walls and the lockers in the hallways and the signs banning hockey sticks and promoting Mike Lupica children’s books. There are the teachers “checking for understanding” and the elementary classes on poetry (“It’s so cool, isn’t it, how warm it is,” DeVos intoned regarding a poem about the sun). There is a healthy recess.
But there are also portraits of famous rabbis, many of them dead, lining the hallways. There is the focus on religious study before a portion of secular education. For the room of third-graders that DeVos visited, she watched as a teacher spent close to 20 minutes of class time explaining the phrasing of food blessings.
The Far Rockaway institution, launched in 1972, has a lot going for it. DeVos observed special education students getting one-on-one attention. Some 80 percent of graduates go to college, according to an alumni director. There are long hours that can extend from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., but a decent amount of time is devoted to secular work. This is a different situation from the schools operated by other Jewish groups, some of which have been investigated by the city for potential shortfalls in secular education. Naftuli Moster, now an education advocate who campaigned for the investigations, went to one of those ultra-Orthodox schools. Moster says he got to college not knowing what the word “essay” meant.
The deep secular inadequacies at private Jewish schools like the one he attended make Moster frustrated that DeVos highlighted only “phenomenal schools.”
She sidestepped the deeper controversies of religious education, just as she ignored the city’s public schools en masse.
That, despite saying in remarks at an Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation event on Wednesday that “The main focus of my work is to recognize problems, and then take them head on.”
The foundation, by the way, was founded by a Catholic cardinal, and DeVos praised the church’s educational work, too. She also spoke in praise of school choice, which for her has previously included the power for parents to choose private schools and take tax money with them. According to her prepared remarks, she included the memorable line “Choice is about freedom!”
So you might be forgiven for thinking that the main focus of her New York trip was to highlight alternate educational options. Many of those options are excellent, just as many of them are mediocre, but ultimately they are options that the vast majority of New York parents do not choose.
Maybe in DeVos’ happy future more parents would. (Less than 20 percent of NYC students attend parochial and independent schools combined.) Maybe she just doesn’t have ideas for how to fix school segregation or underperforming schools of all kinds, key issues for the city. Maybe she does have ideas besides choice. But we don’t know because she didn’t comment to reporters on what she learned during her NYC visit, because she had to hop on a commercial flight back to DC, not a private plane.