Cuban Minister of Education Dr. Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella takes a break from her office at a new wiki hotspot in some unidentified park in Vedado. Drops of sweat slide down her back. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is on her phone in D.C. An AC unit, turned to 62º F, blasts the Emma Thompson smile off her face. In a gesture of goodwill—or simply to be facetious—Dr. Velázquez has reached out on Whatsapp. DeVos, feeling strong and swollen with cold air, Whatsapps back, and the two women discuss education today and what it means to be a national figurehead. What follows is a transcript of their “would be” conversation.
Dr. Velázquez: Ms. DeVos, I want to congratulate you on your successful nomination. ¡Qué complicado!—the final weeks were tense!
Ms. DeVos: Thank you. Please call me “Betsy.” Yes, the questions in the committee hearings were difficult, but I represent a fresh perspective on freedom and choice in education. Ultimately, the committee understood my ability to be an innovator and advocate for children.
Dr. Velázquez: Vice President Pence’s tie break for your Cabinet nomination was an historic event. We’ve never had such a situation in Cuba. I must say, I am pleased that renewed diplomatic relations let us Whatsapp about education. I have seen your website. Nice photo of you and your husband, by the way. If you tweet it, I’d be happy to like it! You look like Emma Thompson, you know that?
Ms. DeVos: Thank you, Ena. If nothing else, it is important to those outside of the US to realize that America is about freedom. This means that our schooling system should give parents the individual freedom to choose what is best for their children. You can tweet me on that, if you want (chuckle).
Dr. Velázquez: Do you include all parents—not just parents of high income—in this conception of choice? It is my understanding that families who struggle financially will be left out.
Ms. DeVos: As I mentioned in my 2015 speech at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin, there are several “inconvenient truths.” To address your question, all we have to do is look at what I called “inconvenient truth #6:” If you live in an area with quality public schools, you can most likely get a reasonable education. In most cases this means you do not live in an economically depressed area. If you don’t live in an area with good public schools, you can move to a different place, if you have the financial means to do so. If you don’t, you’re screwed. If your local public schools aren’t very good, but you have the cash, you can send your kids to a higher-performing private school. But, if you don’t have the financial resources, you are again screwed.
Dr. Velázquez: ¡Ay mi madre! It seems cruel to not care whether people have enough to have a decent education. In Cuba, our Revolution has provided a free and quality education to all, rich or poor. Just to notice what a priority it is, we spend 6.8% of our total GDP on education, while the U.S. spends less, only 4.8%. Considering the U.S. is such an economically prosperous nation, why doesn’t the government spend more on education?
Ms. DeVos: I’ll go back to my 2015 speech at South by Southwest and ‘Inconvenient truth #4:” “Government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.” We need to get rid of top-down solutions, let the people, not the government have more control and responsibility. We must become more innovative in our types of teaching and learning models. Competition will improve our schools, or we’ll close them down or convert them into something else. For example, right now we have different types of schools in the U.S. We have charter schools, magnet schools, virtual and blended learning schools, as well as private schools; parents can homeschool their children. As you probably know, I have been working tirelessly to promote parents’ rights to exercise their choice. This means a parent could use a school voucher, an education savings account, or a tax savings to move their children out of a failing public school and into successful alternatives, like a charter school or a private school. This range of options invests in what works, knowing that our families are being served with the education model of their choice.
Dr. Velázquez: Mire, Señora DeVos, in Cuba, thanks to our socialist government and our fundamental revolutionary values—upon which Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara conceived our quality public educational system, I may add—we have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, especially for a developing country. #AConvenientTruth#1 In addition, we have specialty schools for students who exhibit tremendous talent, like a sports or arts school, or even the Lenin school, which focuses on the natural sciences. Students must compete for acceptance into these schools, but the schools themselves are public. Because we are successful with these options, we have no need for private schools. Why does your government choose to invest in these public school alternatives?
Ms. DeVos: To support choice, of course. We live in a land of freedom, as I mentioned before. Freedom is our principle value: the American Dream! With poor student test scores and graduation rates from our public schools, our country’s education options need to be reconfigured and improved. As you can imagine, schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to have less resources and less qualified teachers, disproportionately disadvantaging students of color—of African American, Latino, and Native American heritages, along with immigrant students. Race and class combined tend to indicate the neighborhood public schools that will succeed or fail. This is unjust, and I want parents and youth to have the power to choose a succeeding school.
Dr. Velázquez: Did you just tweet at me? ¡Coño, qué rápida! I think I’ll retweet that! Anyway, I get it, B, . . . but how do you envision school vouchers and private schools helping youth to succeed? For example, how do you ensure that parents understand how to access and apply vouchers? I have read that in Nevada and Wisconsin, for example, it’s the middle and high income families that typically use vouchers, and that these families already were sending their children to private or religious schools. So vouchers—that serve 1% of students in the U.S.—have failed to increase access of low-income students in high performing schools. Instead, don’t vouchers pull public monies from public schools and direct funds to private schools?. Si saco la cuenta, Betsy, this policy will expand private education, religious or secular, and ultimately dismantle public schooling, and more likely leave the underserved in a worse situation. ¿Cómo tú puedes hacer eso, chica?
Ms. DeVos: Oh, that’s alright. I think I’ll share that on Facebook. Ven acá, Ena, failing schools will need to improve or close. Children should not suffer low-quality education. In addition, if teachers are not getting results, they are not doing their job right and should be fired, and the good ones will be rewarded.
Dr. Velázquez:. Pero, Betsy, you made it clear that some children may not get a first rate education. As our national hero, José Martí said, “Ser culto es el unico modo para ser libre.” Meaning, “People can only be free if they are truly educated.” I am concerned about what seems as a lack of public responsibility. So how do you ensure freedom for all people when not all children will have equal opportunity for a quality education? In Cuba, our socialist government believes in everyone working together for the good of all. And when there is a problem, school personnel and the community are in dialogue to help solve that situation, never considering relocating one’s child and leaving the school. The Cuban government assigns its education research group, The Center for Pedagogical Sciences, to investigate system glitches and find solutions.
Ms. DeVos: Sure, some level of governmental organizing is useful, but IMHO, I believe that states know better about their particular problems and contexts then the federal government and, therefore, should make their own decisions. I just accidentally hit “send” on FB myself—LOL. In the U.S., property taxes pay for public school budgets. We believe that because parents pay these taxes, they should be able to choose which school their child attends. I have heard that Cuban schools are severely underfunded and teachers don’t always show up. Consequently, parents who can, complement their children’s education through afterschool tutoring. I’ve also heard that because teacher salaries in Cuba are so low, they have a hard time recruiting for the teaching profession. As a result, there are less qualified teachers in the classrooms. Is that correct? What are you doing to address school funding, preparing quality teachers and addressing high teacher attrition rates?
Dr. Velázquez: It is true that teacher salaries are always something that we are trying to improve. There have been several pay raises for teachers, but the economy is in flux, especially with some capitalist measures we have entertained to try improve employment in all sectors. It is not uncommon for teachers to have additional jobs, like tutoring, to supplement their income or a job that incorporates some other type of entrepreneurial or self-employment situation. In a socialist society, the government ensures that the people have the basics. We prioritize and subsidize food, health and education so that no one goes without. We have a very high quality of life considering that we are a developing country, but I will not deny that we have economic struggles, which do affect teacher recruitment and attrition rates. I have spoken publically about these concerns. The Cuban government also believes that parents should be active in their children’s education and they are. Our socialist system addresses education as a social justice issue. We believe that it is every Cuban’s duty to contribute to society. The Revolution has made education a right and a duty for all Cuban citizens. It is the responsibility of our revolutionary government—and my office—to set the framework for our national educational system with trained experts to write policy and curriculum, and to study what works and what improvements need to be made. We ensure that all students receive the same quality education throughout the island, in urban as well as rural areas. Plenty of your own educational researchers, including UNESCO, have found our structure, method and results to be sound.
Ms. DeVos: The United States is much larger than Cuba. You don’t have to deal with borders like we do and the problems that people cause who try to immigrate here . . . taking our jobs and then there are children who can’t communicate in the classroom because they don’t know English. Part of my belief in choice means that states can determine what and how they want to educate their populations, including students with disabilities. The states should have all the power.
Dr. Velázquez: I thought that the US government made it a right for students with disabilities to have a proper education. And now you are leaving it as a question mark for the state to decide? How can this be effective? Furthermore, I have heard that in the US there are textbook conglomerates like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin, and a testing culture . . . that standardized testing occurs frequently and teachers devote a good portion of their classroom time for months preparing students for these tests. Can you really claim that states and local teachers are making their own decisions? And are these decisions in the best interests of the children’s learning? What about their creativity and humanity? José Martí and Karl Marx recognized the importance of engaging one’s creativity in learning, teaching and labor, for which we have the work-study principle, with the idea of ensuring both the manual and mental aspects of our humanness. In what ways does the US education system cultivate children’s full human potential? Cuban children learn to recite poetry from José Marti, they have weekly music and art classes, and are groomed to perform whenever a visitor or special occasion arises.
Ms. DeVos: Charter schools, both for-profit and not-for profit, along with private schools, are our answer for students’ highest potential; they are not held back by the bureaucracy of a heavy government system and its many regulations. Public schools have long maintained a status quo education that renders mixed results and have been erroneously guided by teacher unions that are more concerned about teachers’ health care and pensions than actually teaching children. Indeed, marketization in education has led to some over-testing, and over-testing limits teachers’ curricular and pedagogical choices. But these public school alternatives should be the answer, providing not just parents but teachers with more freedom around what and how they teach. Less regulation will breed creativity, passion and a more authentic commitment. School leaders, particularly those of faith, should and can have greater autonomy in “taking charge.”
Dr. Velázquez: Your background is non-traditional for this office. You were the Chairwoman of an enterprise and investment firm, you led Michigan’s Republican Party, and you founded the American Federation for Children to promote school privatization. Your Windcrest Group website profile states you are an “advocate” and an “innovator”. I can only imagine how difficult it is to transition from corporate sector work to a context in which the products are not material products, but children. How are you managing this transition?
Ms. DeVos: You may just see me as a businesswoman, but actually I am also a woman of faith. That combination informs my perspective on schooling. I believe in traditional, Judeo-Christian values no matter the content of my work. Through my Christian faith and Biblical world view, I seek to transform US business, economic, political and educational sectors. I desire a return to traditional American values that ensure freedom. #IheartCouncilofNationalPolicy.
Dr. Velázquez: You say that you are promoting choice, but it sounds like you are promoting a particular set of views and values based on a certain form of Christianity. We promote values in Cuba but they are values that support humanity and social justice. Although people are free to practice any religion, that is not the basis of our government. We separate church and state. I understand that the Republican platform seeks to deregulate business or reduce economic oversight. However, speaking about schools . . . they prepare young people to be productive citizens for the workforce and for life. In Cuba, we do not see schools as businesses whose profits can be measured. These are our children. First and foremost, we must teach humanity.
Ms. DeVos: Schools reflect the political economy of their nation country. With a neoliberal market economy in the US, this is indeed reflected in our schools. For example, about 70% of charters schools in Michigan are for-profit. Individuals and businesses have generously contributed to schools to provide better options for children. This private charity is commendable—a true act of solidarity—and the for-profit element exists to motivate teachers and schools to make their best effort. #CapitalismMotivates
Dr. Velázquez: Repito, qué complicado. President Trump’s tweets about seeking to break the bureaucracy that holds back public schools from succeeding. However, I must ask: How are the proposed charters regulated? What are their admittance policies? I have been lead to believe that charters do not follow the same stringent hiring, evaluation and admittance requirements of public schools . . . nor do they require teachers to be certified. Charters tend to be highly selective, exclude academically low performing students and students with disabilities so that charters can appear to succeed academically. This would please the shareholders, no doubt, but how can this be considered sound and just for a nation? The conflict of interest is glaring. For-profit charters are unconscionable from a Cuban lens.
No doubt voucher expansion will cause an exodus of children from public schools into parochial, charter and private schools. Won’t this cause an even greater gap between wealthy families who access top schools and vulnerable families that attend their local, drastically defunded public schools? Why not take some of the great ideas you propose for charter and private schools and instead invest them in public education, in vocational education, and in teacher education? Wouldn’t that help improve not only the educational system but also strengthen your democracy? #PublicFundsForPublicGood
Ms. DeVos: I am confused—I see Cubans, especially young people, continuing to try to leave Cuba to have a better life somewhere else. How do you explain this?
Dr. Velázquez: True, Cubans are leaving Cuba. The US blockade impedes our people from having what they need, but we continue to resolver in whatever way we can. What is particularly problematic is that our society has invested in those young people, in their education and vocational training and our revolution needs them. Ask any Cuban who has immigrated how they compare their education in Cuba to their children’s in the US. Educational research on Cuban children in U.S. schools reflects their preparedness. From an early age in Cuba they are involved in service-learning work in a school garden and care for their school property . . . maybe even paint the school or clean the school grounds. When they complete pre, I mean high school, or mid-level tech training, the state guarantees them employment.
Ms. DeVos: Dr. Velázquez, I am hopeful that the embargo will become a thing of the past. President Trump has eyed Cuba for increased business opportunities. And I’m not talking simple website creation, although I think revolico is cute.
Dr. Velázquez: I too hope that the US will see fit to end the blockade. But let’s not let the economy eclipse our education conversation. Lately I have been reading Linda Darling Hammond. Oye esto, she writes so beautifully: “The fact that choice doesn’t guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through 500 cable-TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome. The key question, therefore, is whether we can create a system in which all schools are worth choosing and all children are chosen by good schools.” Qué bello. You might consider consulting with her.
Before we part, I would like to leave you with a quote from our beloved José Martí, one that transmits a Christian sentiment with which you might resonate: “Everything that divides men, everything that separates or herds men together in categories, is a sin against humanity.” Let us not divide children and youth into categories of charter, for-profit and private schools, which will lead to greater inequalities, but instead unite them under an improved and more just public educational system. As John Dewey wrote in The School and Society, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (italics by author).
Ms. DeVos: Lovely sentiments indeed. Hopefully we’ll see the end to the embargo soon and we can meet in Varadero. By the way, do you think that you could get me a good deal on a beach house down there? I would love to bring my socios—Donald, Stephen, Vladmir, my husband, and my brother Erik. Then, maybe you can join me for a Cuba Libre and have a tete-a-tete?
Dr. Velázquez: Seguro que yes. Text me on my iphone. Ooops. Me tengo que ir—la guagua del trabajo me espera. #Socialismoomuerte #DarlingHammondshouldbesecretaryofed