An Open Letter To Secretary DeVos

By Chris Yang

Secretary DeVos,

Concerning your attitude and answer, or should I say lack of an answer, toward Representative Clark’s question about a school receiving federal school vouchers that also explicitly discriminates against LGBTQ+ students and/or students from LGBTQ+ households:

You are wrong. Just flat out wrong. 100% wrong. Wrong beyond all belief. Wrong in today’s United States, wrong in history’s eyes, wrong by all accounts.

Your conjecture that “parents are best-equipped to make choices for their children’s school and education decisions” is ill-informed. It is also unbelievably trite and dismissive when this is your response to the question of whether or not federal school vouchers, or indeed federal educational aid money, should require schools to not discriminate against students if approved by state government. By answering Rep. Clark’s question in this manner, you are superseding civil rights for states’ rights. In case you don’t understand, let me be perfectly clear:

civil rights must take priority over states’ rights.

Civil rights cannot be taken away by state governments. The inherent nature of civil rights is to recognize the basic needs of all people, regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, ability level, age, or any other identity that gets marginalized in this country. When you start believing the opposite of that, what you are saying is that a state has the power to revoke civil rights. You are saying that North Carolina is allowed to prevent people from using the restrooms. You are saying that Florida is allowed to prevent people from voting. You are saying that New York is allowed to prevent people from renting or owning property. Understand that when you say states’ rights trump civil rights, you are arguing that LGBTQ+ people are not allowed to live in North Carolina. You are arguing that black folks are not allowed to live in Florida. You are arguing that low-income folks are not allowed to live in New York.

To quote the show The West Wing: “there are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we’re one country.”

If you believe that all Americans have a set of inalienable rights, in other words if you believe in the Declaration of Independence, then you cannot believe that states’ rights trump civil rights.

And just in case you’re wondering how we have been a country for over two centuries and still believe in these inaccurate beliefs, it is because, as it turns out, parents are not the best equipped to make educational choices for their kids.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that parents do not or should not have a role in their child’s education. But to tell me that a parent, by the sheer nature of being a parent, knows more about political theory and social equality than the child’s social studies teacher, more about Calculus and Linear Algebra than the child’s mathematics teacher, more about Shakespeare and Amy Tan than the child’s literature teacher, more about color theory and the Renaissance than the child’s art teacher, more about titration and benzene rings than the child’s science teacher, more about muscle development and game theory than the child’s physical education teacher -- I’m sorry but you are simply mistaken. The beauty of our educational system, one that we have perfected throughout the entire history of the world, is that we are at a point where we can certify expertise in a wide variety of different fields and have those experts focus on the education of the following generation. And do you know how I know that this is the best method? Because almost every single institution of higher learning the world around uses the same methodology.

And when the Texas state government passes laws to add, remove, and/or change the text in their school textbooks, or when the Louisiana state government passes laws to ban the teaching of evolution in the classroom, these are not wins for states rights. These are losses for education. Because history is not determined by popular vote. Because science is a not determined by a poll. The times when that has been the case have always led to institutional failure. Book banning, segregation, the plummeting of the educational greatness that was once touted by every single United States president prior to this one in the modern era as the mark of a great nation.

Education is the only way we succeed as a nation. It is the only way we make progress in our society. The history of humanity can be measured by its educational achievements - tools, writing, religion, enlightenment, industry, technology. In a day and age in which we have access to immeasurable data and innumerable thoughts, nothing counts for anything unless we have the educational tools to think and analyze critically.

And it’s a shame that I have to tell you this explicitly, Secretary DeVos. Because you are not just a citizen with opinions, blustering about in the world. By some cruel twist of fate, you are the national Secretary of Education.

Because in my opinion, the worst part of your testimony is not that you have somehow not understood the value of education, or that you are putting the parents’ rights above states’ rights above civil rights. No, the worst part of your testimony is that you are normalizing blatant exclusionary policy and justifying discrimination. Because you are not just a private citizen anymore, Secretary DeVos.

When you fail to stand up for the right of education for LGBTQ+ students, the United States government fails to stand up.

And in case you are delusional enough to believe that the students who publicly booed you out of the building at Bethune-Cookman University were somehow mistaken, let me assure you that they were not. They understood something that you seem not to grasp. They understood that discrimination does not end with one identity, with one group of students. They understood that oppression is linked. When the United States government fails to stand up for LGBTQ+ students today, the United States government will fail to stand up for Muslim students tomorrow. Or black students the next day. Or Latino/a students the next day. Or low income students the next day. Or undocumented students the next day. When the United States government fails to stand up for a single student, the United States government fails to stand up for all students.

When you, Secretary DeVos, fail to stand up for one student, you fail to stand up for all students.

So this is not a hypothetical situation. This is real life. This is the real life future of real life students who live in the real life United States of America. And this is YOUR test, Secretary DeVos. Are you going to fail to stand up for students? Because the educational future of the country has always been and will continue to be defined by the person in your job. Let me tell you something else too. So far, based on the budget offered by this administration, your progress report is a solid F. Is this going to be your legacy?

About the Author
Chris YangChris Yang is a student affairs professional who's worked at University of California Santa Cruz, University of the Pacific, and now College of Marin.

One thought on “An Open Letter To Secretary DeVos”

  1. The authors of the Constitution were against the idea of human equality, and explicitly said so on numerous occasions. They were also supporters of the right of freedom of association (which must, of course, include the right _not_ to associate). They were also explicit supporters of keeping America a kinship-based nation for those of European descent alone. It is dishonest to pose as a supporter of the Constitution and simultaneously claim that equality and multiracialism are your your goals.

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