Reflecting On 2017


Professor David Donahue, Director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Sankofa, the African word that means we need to know and understand our past to head intelligently into our future.  Sankofa is usually symbolized by a bird whose feet are moving forward but whose head is looking back.  Sankofa is an apt metaphor for the McCarthy Center as we head to the end of 2017.  This year marks our 15th anniversary.  It also marks a year of strategic planning to chart the course for the next five years.  


As with Sankofa, there is much wisdom in the McCarthy Center’s past that can inform what we value: integrity, knowledge, and service.  Recently, we have been conducting oral history interviews with some of the people who knew Leo McCarthy well. Over and over, we hear about Leo’s humanity, his compassion for those who were marginalized by society, and his commitment to doing what is right. At our 15th anniversary celebration on November 9, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi described Leo as a person who could see the “divinity” in everyone.  If only this generosity of spirit were the norm in politics now.  In the meantime, it animates the kind of community we create in our programs at the Center.

Leo’s values speak to us as we look ahead.  We began this new school year with a sense of heaviness and anxiety as racism and white supremacy, which have always been part of the history of this nation, became especially visible and were given permission to manifest by our nation’s president. That heaviness has as women have come forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment, including by our elected officials.

As 2017 ends, we are resolved to engage for racial, gender, and other forms of justice.  Our strategic planning process will give us direction toward those goals as we support students eager to engage in their community and in political life.  We are developing a new program for next year to connect USF students with community organizers and advocacy organizations.  We hope to engage students in city government as we continue to recruit students for state and national government internships.  Since the start of the fall, we have registered over 800 USF students as new voters who are ready to make their voices heard.  Early in 2018, we will launch our gubernatorial speakers series, bringing candidates for the “second most important office in the nation” to campus so they can engage with students, staff, and faculty.

We are eager to hear your ideas about what you see as strategic directions for the McCarthy Center.  Please feel free to share your thoughts with us any time.  Our efforts are stronger when they reflect a collective vision.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section here or email

The Worst that Could Happen with Betsy DeVos


David Donahue, Director and Professor, Urban Education Reform

A recent article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post was headlined “What’s the worst that could happen with Betsy DeVos as education secretary?” Only in a Trump administration where knowledge and expertise are not considered assets would DeVos be nominated for secretary of education. DeVos has neither attended public schools nor worked in them. She has not sent her children to public schools and she has no credentials or degrees in education. She does head a political action committee “All Children Matter” that helps politicians supporting privatization.

In the Washington Post article, Strauss lays out two scenarios under DeVos, both developed by Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. One of the scenarios has DeVos leading the federal government in replacing Title I support to poor schools with $20 billion in funding for vouchers enabling families to send children to private, less regulated, for-profit schools that track success less by the academic achievement of their students and more by their ability to attract students – and the dollars attached to them – in a marketplace.

Unfortunately, research on vouchers offers no evidence of their effectiveness. The achievement of children attending private schools on vouchers is no better than if they were in public schools, and the public schools with fewer dollars have even more difficulty educating the children left behind.

Market based reforms of education treat schools like businesses, students like clients. Education does indeed provide wonderful individual benefits, and not just preparation for a good paying job, but — one hopes — discovery of lifelong intellectual pursuits and passions. In the United States, public schools also serve the common good, something that seems lost on market based reformers like voucher proponents. Some families with children in private school support vouchers with the argument that they should not be “doubly burdened” paying for their own children’s education and supporting public education with their tax dollars as well. A good society is not just the sum of everyone looking out for himself or herself, however. Even enlightened self-interest should remind those without children in public schools that their health depends on educated nurses, their safety on educated brake mechanics, the future of our democracy on an electorate able to distinguish fake news from journalism.

Defense of the common good will require action on multiple fronts in the next four years. Public schools are key to that common good. They are worth fighting for, they are worth funding, and they are worth keeping out of the hands of privateers, like Betsey DeVos.

Betsy DeVos’ nomination was originally scheduled to be reviewed by the Senate Committee last Wednesday morning. DeVos’ hearing has been rescheduled for Tuesday, January 17 at 5:00pm.