Swapping Coins and Talking Choice with Betsy DeVos

Guest post by Tom Dodd

It was an honor to help facilitate the 2017 NASSP National Principals Institute, assist with Principal of the Year finalist interviews, and attend the awards ceremony. It brought back great memories of last year’s Institute, the outstanding leaders I was surrounded by, and my own surprise announcement as the 2017 National Principal of the Year.

It also gave me a chance to create new memories. I caught up with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as she left the awards ceremony after delivering her comments to the State Principals of the Year. I reintroduced myself and gave her one of my gold challenge coins. The secretary’s confidential assistant offered her coin in return, accompanied by the potential of an audience with the secretary the following morning. (I offered to bring Secretary DeVos a pumpkin spice latte if she could make it happen, my treat!)

So, you might be curious about the coin exchange. “Challenge coins” are common in the military and law enforcement to remind officers of the gravity of their work and acknowledge a job well done. I got the idea from Bradford Hubbard, when he was principal of Antioch Community High School in Illinois. Adopting the practice, I carry a set of custom gold coins to hand to students, staff, or parents who display character and integrity while going above and beyond. The coins come exclusively from me, and our school community really values them. It appears Secretary DeVos does as well.

The following morning, I arrived for what I thought might be a five-minute photo op at the U.S. Department of Education, pumpkin spice latte in hand. Fortunately, the photo op evolved into a 30-minute conversation about school choice and education in America. Some background: Parents are savvy education consumers in the Poudre School District of Fort Collins, CO, where I’m proud to be the principal of Lesher Middle School. We have open enrollment and a variety of options—International Baccalaureate, Core Knowledge, project-based learning, STEM, STEAM, expeditionary learning, etc. Parents do their homework and “vote with their feet” in trying to find the most personalized fit for their child(ren). While this dynamic adds a level of competition to our public system, we maintain a greater focus on serving our families and helping them get what they need. So my message to Secretary DeVos was: We can build diverse choice opportunities for each student and provide an education with equity and excellence within the public education system, not despite it—if we’re willing to work hard enough and think through the barriers.

Finding common ground, I expressed appreciation for the secretary’s priority to reduce “federal overreach and prescription” in accountability, a consistent lament by public educators throughout the No Child Left Behind era, especially considering less than 5 percent of funding in my district comes from the federal government. I too value local control, putting the decisions and resources in the hands of the people closest to solving the problems. In the words of career analyst and author Daniel Pink, people need purpose, mastery, and autonomy. In my district and at my school, we have plenty of the first two, but we could use some help with the third. Yet I’m concerned that where I see local control at the district and school site level, she sees local control as “the family’s living room.”

My worry, which she may not anticipate, is the unintended consequences and potential discriminatory practices that can emerge from a lack of transportation; exorbitant school tuition and fees; limited understanding of how to navigate the choice system and available options; etc., if choice is done selfishly. My apprehension is she doesn’t see the single parent working multiple jobs just to hold it all together, who may not know how to have the well-researched, thoughtful, living-room-choice conversation she envisions. Choice available to most but accessible to few increases inequality. We need to guard against creating a system in which our neighborhood public school becomes the default school of last resort. This responsibility does not fall solely on our secretary of education, but on all of us to lock elbows around a common belief … that as much as we may want our child(ren)’s education to be a personalized, individual pursuit, we must not lose sight of the ideal that a free and appropriate, vibrant, and vigorous public education is not only a common good, but the cornerstone and promise of our American democracy.

I’m hopeful my discussion with the secretary goes beyond the photo op and this blog post, and becomes the first step toward further dialogue about school choice and today’s most pressing educational topics. Thank you, Secretary DeVos, for your time (and The Vanishing American Adult book recommendation. I bought it on my way home.). When can we meet again? I’ll bring the Starbucks.

As our conversation wound down, Secretary DeVos asked me what two to three things I think she should do. I told her I’d like to think more about that and get back to her. So colleagues, what advice should I offer if I get to meet with her again?

 

Tom Dodd is principal of Lesher High School in Fort Collins, CO. He is also the 2017 National Principal of the Year.

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