Senator Burr, sir, my name is Shannon Dingle, and you represent me. I live in Raleigh, NC. You represent my husband and six children, who you'll see pictured throughout this post. You also represent the hundreds of other North Carolina residents who voiced their opinion on your recent (and now deleted) Facebook post expressing support for Betsy DeVos's nomination to the position of Secretary of Education.
I'm a former public school teacher. Before I stood before my first class of students, I knew plenty regarding the significant debate about growth vs. proficiency. (Actually, I gave a speech to my high school's National Honor Society about the issues there, after our school was given a low grade by the state despite serving many students who arrived with below-grade proficiency in all subjects.) I've only seen that conversation grow louder since then. This is Education 101. Or maybe it's better described as a prerequisite for a 101 class. But Betsy DeVos clearly didn't know even the Cliff's Notes version of that central issue, based on her confusion during the nomination hearing. This shows she wasn't even willing to listen to or read a basic briefing on the issues related to the position she's seeking.
I have a Master's in Education, specializing in autism and learninig disabilities. Even before I took a single class, though, I knew about the federal law IDEA that guarantees a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities. It's a cornerstone piece of legislation. My students were able to be in public schools because of this necessary law. Betsy DeVos didn't know what IDEA was, didn't know it was a federal law, and admitted herself that she didn't understand basic questions about it during her hearing.
I'm the mother to six children in NC public schools. I keep hearing - from several folks in DC, including President Trump and Mrs. DeVos - that public schools don't work, that they're irreparably broken. Could you sit across from the fine teachers and administrators in our state and criticize their work to their faces? Because that's what you're saying when you buy into this rhetoric. I'm the product of public schools in Florida and North Carolina, and my husband is the product of the same in New Jersey, Ohio, and North Carolina. You'll be receiving a letter from my 10-year-old daughter in 4th grade soon, because she wants you to know how excellent her public school experiences have been in your state. Maybe we should send a copy to Mrs. DeVos as well.
Two of our children have disabilities, one receives ESL services, and another is served via the gifted and talented program. When leaders like Mrs. DeVos talk about school funding, they begin at the premise that every state and district has an average price per pupil spending. This is true, and the figure is used to compare student costs across different contexts. In reality, though, these averages are just that: averages. Some kids cost less to education while others cost more, sometimes significantly more. For example:
- Two of our children receive no extra services at school; their cost of education is much lower than average.
- Meanwhile, one of our children is served through gifted and talented programming and another through ESL and intervention programs. Those students require - per federal law - educational specialists in each area, which requires additional funds from the district for their education. That cost is distributed across all the students served by that program in their school, but it still increases their actual price per student expenditure.
- And then we get to our daughter in a Title 1 preschool where she receives special education services. Beyond the Title 1 funding, she gets speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy at school, each 1-2 times a week. On top of that, her support needs require a one-on-one aide to allow her to access the education she deserves, per federal law. In other words, her actual price per pupil cost includes Title 1 funding, parts of the salaries for three different therapists, and the entire salary for a teacher's assistant whose job is to be her aide. Obviously, this means her education costs significantly more than her siblings or most other students in the school or district.
During her truncated hearing in which questions were limited, Betsy DeVos shared that she had no experience as a public school student, parent, or educator. None of her answers or body of work before now have shown that she understands the funding structures for traditional public schools.
Vouchers are harmful for vulnerable students. Most voucher proponents, like DeVos, act as if the cost per pupil spending in our district applies to all of my children equally, as if we can say the price per pupil in our district is exactly what it costs to educate Jocelyn, Patience, Philip, Robbie, Patricia, and Zoe Dingle. That's clearly not true, given what I shared above.
What is reality, though, is that vulnerable students lose educational services when funding is diverted to private schools, the majority of which are religious in nature. These schools aren't required to accept several of my children. Funds used to educate my children and other children in need of exceptional services leave the school while my children aren't able to go elsewhere. The education of the children demonstrating highest need suffers in this set-up. Mrs. DeVos's definition of school choice means only some students get a choice while others don't. All of her educational efforts have been toward for-profit privatization rather than student-serving public service.
(What about charter schools? Well, it's worth noting that the DeVoses only shifted to charter schools after they invested $5.8 million in a failed attempt to implement a state-wide voucher system in Michigan, which concerns me about allowing her to have any control over federal education funds. After that failure, then the charter attempts led by Mrs. DeVos in Detroit were even worse. The only other district to intensely invest in charter schools - New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina - has largely excelled, so I'm not saying that charters are always bad, even on a large scale. I've observed both success and failure in them. In the interests of full disclosure, I served as a special education consultant in the planning stages for New Orleans's charter program. Choosing a leader from that program or another program with similar successes wouldn't have raised eyebrows for me, because students are being served well, for the most part, there. But it makes no sense whatsoever to choose such a failed voucher and charter school leader as Mrs. DeVos to implement plans for either at the federal level.)
My husband and I attended public universities in North Carolina. Lee graduated with a BS in civil engineering from NC State in 2004. I graduated with a BA in Communication Studies at UNC in 2003 and a MAEd in Special Education from ECU in 2009. We both benefited greatly from our college and graduate school educations in the public system in our state. Hearing Mrs. DeVos share her lack of experience with public post-secondary schooling concerned me during the hearings.
I have student debt. I was an out of state student at Carolina. As I'm sure you know, the costs are much higher in that situation. I chose to graduate in three years from UNC because tuition increases were making it financially difficult, but I still left with student loans. I am down to about $5000 in loans and will be paying that off soon. Most graduates in our state carry much high loan amounts than I do. When questioned during confirmation hearings, Mrs. DeVos admitted she had no experience with student debt, even among close friends. I don't see how she can impact needed changes there with so few qualifications and so little experience.
I am the survivor of rape and sexual assault. Like a substantial minority of women, I know what it's like to have my body claimed by another in tragic ways. I know what it's like to have someone painfully enter my body without my permission. I know what it's like to bleed and bruise and cry and have nightmares because body parts that should be sacred were violated in criminal and cruel ways. If you've been following the news over the past several years, you know that sexual assaults on college campuses are a serious problem. Many universities have failed in their handling of such crimes. When Mrs. DeVos declined to say if she would enforce Title IX provisions regarding campus sexual assaults, I wanted to throw up. I don't ever want other women to experience what I did, but if they do, I want every support to be in place to help them afterward.
I've personally experienced gun violence. No, not from a grizzly bear, like Mrs. DeVos suggested. I won't go into specifics, but I remember that terror. I know that guns in the hands of good guys aren't always used for good purposes. Furthermore, even here in my county, armed safety officers in our schools can make schools less safe. And I know as a teacher I was already bearing more tasks and responsibilities than I signed on for, so being in a workplace with guns or carrying one myself? No, thank you. (Also, I was sexually harassed and threatened by an administrator in my first school, so arming any of them would have made me quit, even though I loved teaching and our school was already understaffed.) Betsy DeVos's answer to the question about guns in schools was ignorant at best; in the past four years, we've had 210 documented attacks by those with guns in schools and zero by grizzly bears. Furthermore, wildlife experts say bear spray is a better safeguard against such hypothetical and improbable attacks than guns would be.
I could share more concerns, but I think this should be more than enough to give you pause. I'd like to remind you that you represent the families of the 1.46 million public school students in North Carolina, including 169,000 (12.6%) served special education and 97,000+ (6.5%) served by ESL. I'd also like to remind you that federal funding for teachers in the form of grants and loan forgiveness is important, which should interest you because any bit helps in a state that ranks 41st in teacher pay like North Carolina does. You represent those teachers too. You also represent the 55% of college graduates in our state who have student loan debt.
You'll be up for election again in 2022. If you choose not to represent me and my family, I'll campaign in every way I can for whoever runs against you. If no one else steps up, I will run against you, because all families - especially those who are most vulnerable - need to have a voice in DC. So far this term, it seems like you're speaking for your big donor DeVos instead of your constituents. (Given that she has donated more than $40,000 to you over the past four years, if you can't vote against her, please recuse yourself because of the conflict of interest this creates for you.)
I would leave my contact information here for you to follow up, but just check with your office for that. I call almost every day, and I will continue to do so in hopes that you'll begin representing constituents like me.