in Education Reform

An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos

The following is an open letter to the Secretary of the United States Department of Education, Mrs. Betsy DeVos:

Secretary DeVos,

I am concerned. I am concerned that your lack of academic or educational credentials, experience, or knowledge of fundamental principles is already doing a disservice to the children that you were hired to serve. To the teachers that you were hired to serve. To the intellectual future of this great nation that you were hired to serve. Your position is one of service not of status. I don’t know that you truly grasp that fact.

I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I hoped that once you took office the weight of the position and the responsibility of the job before you would lead you to surround yourself with experts that could help you make our education system a shining example of what American ingenuity, creativity, and grit could accomplish. Education reform is a daunting task and those of us who serve on the front lines sacrifice our time, money, sleep, and even our mental and physical wellbeing to serve a cause that will never make us wealthy, powerful, or even noticed. Our passion is unmatched in its veracity and willingness to sacrifice everything for the future of children we will never meet. A sacrifice that will go unnoticed by most for a cause we won’t live to see the results of. This is what it means to be fighting for better educational outcomes.

I am willing to overlook the tweets about pencils and teachers being in receive mode. I have a harder time getting past your utter lack of knowledge of the history of this country’s historically black colleges and universities, but I am also from a northern state where exposure to such things is limited and I am willing to chalk that up to inexperience and the bubble in which you live. I don’t care about grammatical errors on Twitter even though the optics are really bad. I can get past gaffes.

We can disagree about school choice, vouchers, and prayer in schools. Although a supporter of the concept of charter schools, I find their implementation and expansion to be part of the problem rather than the solution. But these arguments are philosophical, ethical, and moral and are not the subject of this letter. These can be decided with data and research. My positions are supported by that data and I wish that you would consider the objective reality those data and research studies point to. Which brings me to my point:

I have opposed your nomination, confirmation, and appointment not because of your positions. I have opposed you leading the Department of Education because you are unqualified. Grossly.

I called my senators and urged them to vote no on your confirmation. The vocal pleas of the constituents of senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr were ultimately drowned out by the sound of cash being counted and those of us who called were dismissed as paid protestors. I assure you, Mrs. DeVos, I was not paid to call my senators and I am certainly not being paid to write this. As I was being passed along to various staffers in Senator Burr’s Washington DC office, I was told that he was voting to confirm you because you were “more than qualified for the position.” When I pressed what qualifications you possessed,  I was told that you donated a lot of money to educational causes. I gave a brief outline of my experience and asked why I should not be nominated instead based on my credentials and experience. The staffer said, “I see your point,” yet Richard Burr voted yes anyway.

You have donated a tremendous amount of money and I don’t doubt that you believe you are doing what you believe to be best for education. I question how you came to the conclusions you did. How do you know you’re correct? What experience do you really have? I thought it fair that I outline my experience in education before I propose a challenge to you. I want you to consider the juxtaposition of our experience the next time you claim you are qualified.

As a child, I went to 12 different schools between kindergarten and high school graduation. Three of those schools were private religious schools, two were vocational, one was a small quasi-private school operated by the group home where I lived for a little more than a year, and the rest (including the one from which I graduated) were public. I am a former high school dropout who has a tremendous and first-hand understanding of the issues our at-risk students face. I was never “failed” by the educational system, even when I dropped out. In fact, it was the system that provided a path to success and redemption and ultimately, graduation.

After a stint in the Navy and after running a successful electrical construction company, I decided to go to college using my GI Bill money. I graduated with a degree in physics and pursued a master’s degree in science education. I have since received a master’s degree in technology education and am about to complete my doctorate. I am a licensed teacher and I have taught in rural, urban, and suburban schools in New York and North Carolina both public and charter. I was the founder and director of a non-profit community health education program in New York and I currently head two non-profit educational initiatives in North Carolina. These non-profits were not formed because I inherited money and could use that to advance an agenda, but were founded with my own hard-earned money as a public school teacher and with the proceeds from the book I wrote detailing my experience as a teenager. The rest of the proceeds from that book continue to be donated to local non-profits supporting at-risk families. I am far from wealthy, but donate my time and money to help students in need (including those pencils everyone was angry about). My education cost me personally. I didn’t have parents to pick up the tab and I still owe something substantially north of $100,000 in student loans, but I continue to give what little I have.

I don’t give this account to brag but to ask, why are you more qualified than me to hold your position? What makes you “more than qualified,” but the many people like me have to fight to have a voice? I make grammatical errors on social media and rather than have thousands of people criticize me, I get picked on (lovingly) by the few people I can reach on Facebook. I would love to have to the audience you have to promote real reform and have meaningful discussion and debate about what is best rather than proselytize about a position based on ideology rather than evidence.

Here is my challenge to you:

Have a discussion with me. Convince me I am wrong. I would prefer a public forum where we can sit at a table and hash out a way forward and reform measures that help ALL students not just the affluent, but I would love a private audience if a public forum is too daunting. Let’s put aside ideology and ego and find a common path together. You have your appointment and I would never expect you to abandon your fight. What I would like is for educational policy to be depoliticized and if two people as far apart as we could agree on reform items, there would be support from the education community.

I have experienced education from every perspective. I don’t see the system as broken and I will continue to fight my heart out to ensure every child has equitable access and opportunity to receive a quality education. If your fight is the same, can we work together to make that a reality? I challenge you to a conversation.

There is an opportunity for real change, are you willing to try?


Daniel P. Kelly