Confirmation hearings begin tomorrow for Trump’s plethora of inexperienced, wildly unqualified, tremendously wealthy cabinet picks. While I’m concerned about pretty much all of them, Betsy DeVos is especially terrifying because we’ve seen her ideas fail firsthand here in Michigan. I’m begging the Democrats in the Senate to show some tenacity, and grill her. Make her defend her ideas with facts and research (spoiler alert: she can’t!) Push back against the idea that privatization is the fix for everything.

Here’s what I would ask, if I had the chance…

  • Mrs. DeVos, you claim that all students deserve a quality education, regardless of their home zip code. The Michigan legislature has been eager to implement many education policies you support. Can you explain why the flood of charter schools in Detroit haven’t improved educational outcomes?
  • Mrs. DeVos, Michigan has allowed charter schools to operate in the state for over two decades. We have over two decades worth of evidence that charters in Michigan do not outperform their public school counterparts. What evidence have you seen that makes you continue to push so hard for charters?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you are a noted advocate of school privatization, as well as for-profit schools. In recent years, Sweden has begun rolling back their country-wide experiment with school privatization because it has not improved educational outcomes at all. Why will mass privatization succeed in the US despite a higher level of childhood poverty compared to Sweden?
  • A follow-up on Sweden. Why do you think privatization failed in Sweden? What lessons did you learn from its failure? Why should the US travel down that road despite the large body of evidence that privatization won’t work?
  • Mrs. DeVos, what was the original purpose of charter schools?
  • Mrs. DeVos, which educational researchers have been most influential to you?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you and your husband were supporters of ‘Right to Work’ legislation in Michigan. Schools in Right to Work states routinely under-perform compared to their counterparts with stronger unions. Why do you believe that RTW legislation can improve education?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you never attended public school. Your children never attended public school. You do not have a degree in education, nor does anybody else in your family. Some 90 percent of this nation’s children attend public schools. How do you plan to identify and empathize with the millions of families in the US public school system when you’ve never set foot in one yourself?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you have in the past talked about the concept of a ‘value school’, where students can be educated for around $5,000 each. A study commissioned by the Michigan legislature recently determined that Michigan’s average per-pupil funding (considerably more than $5,000) is inadequate. The study found that the most successful districts in Michigan receive nearly $9,000 per student. How will your value schools be able to provide a well-rounded education in the arts and STEM for $4,000 less than the most successful districts in Michigan?
  • A follow-up on value schools. What cuts will you have to make to bring costs down to $5,000 per pupil? How will you determine what is valuable, and what has no place in these schools? How will you justify these cuts to the communities they will impact?

Time for change

It’s clear that NAfME has a serious problem on its hands, and they need to part ways with executive director Michael Butera immediately. Apparently on April 26 at a meeting hosted by the NEA, Mr. Butera decided to publicly share some remarkably prejudiced and wrong-headed beliefs. According to Mr. Butera, NAfME’s membership lacks diversity because “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field” and said something to the effect of “music theory is too difficult for them”.


Look, everybody is entitled to their own personal views, no matter how stupid and ignorant those views are. I would like to assure the author of this article that as a NAfME member, I do not share Mr. Butera’s beliefs, and I will be reaching out to NAfME to let them know I believe his views have no place in the organization and neither should he.

It’s laughably easy to come up with a list of musicians to counter Mr. Butera’s beliefs. I’m pretty sure Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Robin and Kevin Eubanks, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Hilliard, James Reese Europe, Adolphus Hailstork, Billy Strayhorn, Gustavo Dudamel, Astor Piazzola, Manuel De Falla, etc, all demonstrate a great understanding of music theory, great keyboard skills, or both. Several of the professors, graduate students, and teachers that I’ve worked with in my short career are also living evidence against Mr. Butera’s beliefs.

I can not in good conscience remain a NAfME member if Mr. Butera is allowed to continue in his leadership role. As teachers we would not dream of excluding students based on their nationality or the color of their skin. It’s massively disappointing that somebody in a position of power in our national organization seems to believe differently.

Stand With Detroit Teachers

The anti-teacher rhetoric in Detroit is out of control these days. If you aren’t familiar with what’s happening in Detroit Public Schools at the moment, let me bring you up to speed. After dealing with a state takeover, nearly a decade of frozen pay, and deplorable working and learning conditions, Detroit teachers have been staging ‘sick-outs’ to protest and shed some light on their predicament. The sick-outs closed 64 schools on Monday, and and almost two dozen on Tuesday.

Emboldened by Governor Rick Snyder’s steadfast commitment to destroying public education (see: the EAA, and the assault on democracy that is his emergency financial manager law), conservatives in Michigan have been lashing out at the teachers. A spokesperson for attorney general Bill Schuette kicked off the fun with this gem (note the plea to ‘think of the children’. More on this later):

“Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”

Here’s a question for you, Mr. Schuette. Are the dangers of black mold and falling concrete not also hurtful to children? Is the fact that we are asking students to learn in this environment not outrageous?

Darnell Earley, the new DPS emergency manager also attempted to pile on when he called the sick-outs “highly unethical”. I do have to defer to Mr. Earley’s expertise in the field of highly unethical actions, as he is one of the people directly responsible for poisoning the children of Flint in the name of saving the city a few bucks.

As if the comments from Earley and Schuette’s lackey weren’t enough, the Detroit News posted an editorial calling for the leaders behind the sick-outs to lose their jobs. This editorial is amazing, for all the wrong reasons:

Students should never be used as bargaining chips

The irony here is delicious. This is exactly what Schuette, Earley, and others are doing when they ask teachers to go back to work for the sake of the children. The teachers are out there protesting for the sake of the children, because no educator in Michigan can expect the state government to do the right thing when it comes to our schools and our students. Snyder side-stepped democracy with his emergency financial manager law, the state takeover of DPS crippled the district and sent it into massive debt, the performance of the schools in the EAA continues to plummet, and Snyder and others have rammed through anti-teacher legislation despite initial promises that they would not do so. The self-proclaimed One Tough Nerd is nothing more than a bully. Anyway, back to the editorial.

In regards to Michigan’s anti-strike laws:

Lawmakers have failed to strengthen the law in recent years, but they should make it a priority now.

Because when faced with workplace and classroom conditions like this, the reasonable response is to punish the people who are trying to fix it.

“These actions by certain DPS teachers do absolutely nothing to address or correct the problems tied to the district,” stated Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “All it’s doing is damaging the education of thousands of students.”

Oh look, another lawmaker attempting to use students as a bargaining chip! Look, when going through regular channels to fix problems does nothing, teachers have to resort to drastic action. The teachers participating in these sick-outs are acting as a voice for their students. They are advocating for safer, healthier learning conditions. Representative Kelly is essentially refusing to acknowledge that crumbling buildings are an issue. These sick-outs are shining a national spotlight on this problem. Calling attention to the neglect of public education in Detroit is the most important thing that DPS students can do for their students right now.

I guarantee that none of the legislators that are sounding off on DPS teachers would send their own child to a crumbling school like Spain. They’re urging teachers to return to their classrooms, but they seem completely unable or unwilling to empathize with the plight of the teachers or students. Forcing students to learn in these conditions every single day surely does more lasting damage to them than missing a few days of school.

I urge you all to stand with DPS teachers. If you’re in Michigan, tell your legislator that the state’s treatment of DPS is unacceptable. Help raise awareness of what these brave educators are doing right now.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

It’s Not About The Money…But It Kinda Is…

So many pundits have tried to frame the war on unions and collective bargaining rights as being “all about the money” for the teachers and other public workers being affected. Teaching has never been about the money, but right now, money is a big part of it.

As a first-year teacher, my take home pay is somewhere in the low- to mid-$20,000s. Not a ton of money. Definitely not enough for me to be considered “greedy” like some of these politicians would have you believe.

The veteran teachers that I work with aren’t exactly rolling around in luxury, either. The math teacher who has been here for 30 years drives to school in a Honda Accord, not an Escalade. They live in a modest home, not a sprawling villa or luxury apartment. They shop at Kohl’s, not Burberry.

30 years in the field, and you still only make a decent-but-modest living. That’s fine, the allure of the education field was never the paycheck. I got into the field because I wanted to share my passion for music with students, and to help sculpt the creative young minds of tomorrow.

That said, it would be nice to keep making a living wage while doing what I love. Once you factor in rent, auto insurance, food, gas, phone bill, and other miscellaneous expenses, there’s not a lot left over to stick in the bank. And the politicians would like us to have even less while at the same time giving huge tax breaks to wealthiest 1% of this country.

Isn’t cognitive dissonance fun?

Some of you will retort, “Fine, keep your salary but start contributing more to your fancy health care plans.”


A good health care plan is our security blanket. Depending on the size of the school, the average teacher will have hundreds, possibly thousands of interactions during the course of a seven hour school day. That seems like an awful lot of illnesses, and it’s pretty nice to have that quality health care plan in place when you have students with bronchitis and laryngitis waltzing into your classroom.

Even with all that in mind, I’d be more than willing to sacrifice some salary or benefits…so long as Governor Snyder and his fellow politicians are willing to make the same sacrifice.

I’ll hold.