Heavens to Betsy: A Letter to the Secretary

Story by Todd S. Hawley & Adam Jordan


Let’s kick this column off with a little pop quiz.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ latest federal funding consideration includes:

A. Increasing federal funding for special education programs
B. Lowering the student to counselor ratio in rural and urban schools
C. Providing increased funding to prepare teachers to support student mental health
D. Letting states use federal dollars to put guns in the hands of teachers

If you guessed D, unfortunately, you are correct and are not in the middle of watching Idiocracy.

Education Secretary Considers Using Federal Funds to Arm Schools”...

While that may seem like a headline for The Onion, unfortunately, it is as real as real gets.  The headline appeared in The New York Times on August 22. As soon as our brains finished running slap out of our ears from trying to comprehend what was going on, we decided this was a conversation Bitter Southerners needed to have. We cannot choose to ignore it if we truly want a better South. We are not here to talk about taking guns away from people. But we cannot stand by and say nothing when the Education Department's leader proposes using federal funds to buy guns for schools.

Here is a Cliff Notes version of the situation: President Barack Obama’s update to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  For many professional educators, the ESSA was seen as progress, but indeed not a policy without flaws. Praised by some and criticized by others, the ESSA did provide more state-based discretion over education spending.  Under ESSA, there is a program known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. These grants are intended to serve high-needs students, and the funds may be used to promote a well-rounded education, improve school conditions for learning, and promote digital literacy through technology.

Now, the ESSA didn’t specify some things verbatim. For example, it’s not in the ESSA, but you probably shouldn't use witchcraft as a behavior modification technique, and you shouldn’t write all your lesson plans down on the back of old Jack Daniels labels, no matter how much they make you think about the good times.  The ESSA didn’t spell such things out explicitly, because hopefully a touch of common sense was at play. But perhaps it should have, because now those funds might be used to fill the hands of underfunded, overworked teachers with guns, expecting them to add "law enforcement professional" to their growing lists of unpaid responsibilities.  Some things you just shouldn’t have to ask, but this is 2018, where convention and common sense are in the back of the bus while the slightly deranged driver tries to see if school buses really can fly.

So, in response, we write this letter to Secretary DeVos, and we ask fellow Bitter Southerners join us in the struggle.  Tweet this letter, share this letter, print it and mail it. As representatives of the better South we all want, we can’t sit quietly while the dollars that sustain our most vulnerable students might be redirected to further militarize our campuses and traumatize our teachers and students.  If you’re with us, here goes:

Dear Secretary DeVos,

About every day, we are Bitter Southerners, but today we are also Bitter Educators, Bitter Citizens. Today, we come to you not only from below the Mason-Dixon Line but from all over this country.  We come to you today as teachers, counselors, social workers, administrators, bus drivers, professors, cafeteria workers, superintendents, parents ... as concerned Americans. We recognize the complexity and difficulties of your position and understand not one of us is perfect.  We come to you today acknowledging that stories are multifaceted and current situations can move and shift at breakneck speed. However, we do not come to you today as naive, uneducated, or complacent.

You see, Secretary DeVos, we spend our days in classrooms, in hallways, and in cafeterias with children.  We spend our days working to create a more informed citizenry capable of solving the complex problems of today and tomorrow, as we know those problems arise from the actions of yesterday. In our work, we include all people regardless of "othering" factors. We don’t do this just because we have to. We do this because we believe this is how we continually strengthen our communities. To do this, we need some things.

Secretary DeVos, we need more funding for students with disabilities. We need special educators with such expertise in classroom management, people who can take the most complex social situations and create pro-social learning environments.  We need counselors … a lot of them … not only to guide our students into the world of higher education, but to help our students navigate traumatic events and spaces with grace, dignity, and sound science.  We need social workers, nurses, and mental health professionals at every corner of every hallway, with smiles on their faces and the budgets that will make a difference for communities and families. We need funding to expand our school models from a one-size-fits-summa-y’all approach into a differentiated and complex network of public community schools with the ability to offer student and community-centered setups. 

It’s a lot, we know.  However, we can take one thing off your plate.  We don’t need guns. Teachers don’t want to shoot anyone.  We understand that tragedies happen, and we are prepared to protect our students with our lives, as many of our colleagues have done before us.  But we are teachers. We teach. We read. We learn. We connect. We know of no data suggesting that placing deadly weapons into our hands would have any positive impact on the lives of our students.  We understand how those outside the field may think this reasonable, but we hope you’ll trust our professional judgment.

We want para-professionals, not .45-caliber parabellums.  Heavens to Betsy, Betsy. Please listen. We are wasting time. We can no longer stand by and allow you to prioritize corporate interests over the lives of students and community interests. We hope you will take our message seriously and stop this senseless legislation before it takes even more money from teachers, students, and schools. We would be happy to sit down and discuss this further.

Just know, we are not the only Bitter Southerners, so it will need to be a big table.

The Bitter Southerners

Good people, we hope all y’all will share this letter on Facebook and Twitter, send it to your friends and family and ask them to share it, and send your letters to Secretary DeVos. After that, call your senators and representatives to let them know you do not support using federal funds to purchase guns for schools. Please share your experiences with us by using this link. We know that together, we Bitter Southerners can work to make sure this proposed use of federal funds never happens and the money is used to support teachers and students in schools in ways promote learning and engagement.