Last week, the Senate voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As a former teacher who holds a BA in Psychology and an MS in Special Education, I could feel the hearts of parents breaking all over the country once the final vote was tallied. I could speak about this event from the perspective of an educator, or as the daughter of a speech therapist for children with special needs, or as a developmental psychology researcher; however, today I am compelled to talk about it as a cancer patient.
On December 15th, 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Invasive Ductal Carcinoma―breast cancer. This is news that no 25-year-old expects to hear. If I had received this news a year ago I may have been most worried about the side effects of treatment, right now I am deeply concerned about how current governmental decisions will affect my quality of life, and the lives of future generations.
Throughout the whole process―from DeVos’s nomination, to her confirmation―I thought about my former students, and the immediate impact this could have on our current education system. Now I’m left wondering, what if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of a student who will not get a proper education due to DeVos’s policies?
This confirmation isn’t just about public education vs. charter vs. private― it’s about people’s lives. Every medical breakthrough has been made by someone who had a chance to be educated, and given the ability to apply what they have learned. My breast cancer was most likely caused by BRCA-1 mutation, a gene mutation discovered in the 90s that significantly increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. This knowledge affects the type of treatment I receive, and the type of surgery I will eventually have. The gene was first uncovered at UC Berkley, a publicly funded university. My cancer is also HER2+, which means it is more aggressive; however, thanks to a medical discovery in 1990, they have a specific treatment to target HER2+ breast cancers. Two of the scientists who created this treatment were publicly educated.
What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of a student who will not get a proper education due to DeVos’s policies?
People often talk about the arts and sports programs being cut when schools cut spending. The other classes to suffer are the sciences, mainly because they are the most expensive class per student. Under Devos, money is most likely to be funneled out of public schools and into charter schools and vouchers. That means children who are educated by the public school system will be less likely to develop a love and knowledge of the sciences. If we are not able to get students invested in STEM programs at an early age, they are less likely to want to pursue scientific and mathematical careers as adults.
Up until this point, access to education has been a fundamental right of every child in the US. The system is by no means perfect, but it guarantees students have a fair chance at an education. While charter schools and private school vouchers could be options for some, we can’t forget about children whose parents may not be able to research the best school choice for their child due to their circumstances (homelessness, internet access, language barrier, addiction, etc.), or who do not have a basic education themselves. Are we then expecting a 5-year-old to be responsible for picking the best school for themselves when they enter kindergarten? DeVos’s plan is a slippery slope towards fueling a cycle of the uneducated.
I hope that the Senators who accepted donations from DeVos, and in turn chose to vote “yes,” will never have a family member or friend who would have benefited from a major medical breakthrough that was halted due to her confirmation as Secretary of Education.