In Penetrating Analysis, Joanne Barkan Predicts Likely Direction of a DeVos Education Department

Joanne Barkan has published another of her remarkably lucid and well-written articles at Dissent, this time a profile of Betsy DeVos.  Barkan explicitly predicts how DeVos, if she is confirmed as Secretary of Education, will set out to accomplish her stated goal of using the power of the U.S. Department of Education to expand education privatization.

Barkan spreads the blame for what has already been greatly expanded privatization far beyond the work of right-wing ideologues: “When did Americans stop talking about public K-12 education as the keystone of a strong democracy, as the incubator for citizenship, shared values, and social cohesion in a diverse nation, as the only educational institution obligated to serve every child who appears on the doorstep?  Conservatives don’t bear sole responsibility for changing the conversation. The Clinton and Obama administrations reduced K-12 education to little more than the required stepping stone to a college degree that leads to successful competition in the global economy. That’s a meager sales pitch, making it all too easy for K-12 schooling to be chopped up into products sold on the market.”

Barkan does distinguish Betsy DeVos, however, from recent administrations, both Democratic and Republican, that have made privatization-lite more palatable through their rhetoric that redefined the schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods as “failing.” All recent administrations have also embraced charter schools as escapes for a few children from so-called ‘failing’ public schools instead of demanding the investments sufficient to make the public system work in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.

Compared to any recent education leader Betsy DeVos is an extremist: “Milton Friedman, patron saint of the free market, died in 2006, but his ideas about public education live on in the thought and deeds of Betsy DeVos, likely the next U.S. Secretary of Education… In 1996, Milton Friedman and his wife Rose (also an economist) launched the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as ‘the nation’s only organization solely dedicated to promoting their concept of educational choice.’  ‘Choice’ is the ed-reform movement’s euphemism for privatization. All the tools used to create choice—vouchers, charter schools, tax credits for private school tuition, tax credits for individuals and businesses that create private school scholarships, ‘education savings accounts’ (usually government-funded debit cards used for various private-school expenses, not just tuition—siphon tax dollars out of the public school system and into private hands.  DeVos has worked with and donated to the Friedman Foundation, recently renamed EdChoice.”

Barkan lists the pro-privatization think tanks and organizations, in addition to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, supported by Betsy DeVos: “For almost twenty-five years, Betsy DeVos has arguably been the most dogged political operative in the movement to privatize public education. Under the banner of choice, she founded, funded, and/or led a mind-numbing list of organizations: the American Federation for Children, Alliance for School Choice, Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s operation), All Children Matter, American Education Reform Council, Children First America, Education Freedom Fund, and Great Lakes Education Project.”

Predicting that Betsy Devos will be “indefatigable—and iron-willed,” Barkan suggests that DeVos will, like Arne Duncan before her, use federal grants as incentives to states to adopt particular policies that are set by the Department of Education as conditions to qualify for federal funding. Barkan reminds us that under Arne Duncan and in exchange for federal money, states agreed to rigid “school turnaround” plans that closed and privatized schools, fired teachers and evaluated teachers by students’ test scores. “DeVos has the opportunity to achieve the same kind of breakthrough for vouchers. Many Americans oppose vouchers knowing that they transfer taxpayer money to private and religious schools to the detriment of the public system. But DeVos doesn’t need to convince the public; she needs to convince state legislators and governors. Right now, Republicans control thirty-three governorships and both chambers of the legislatures in thirty-two states. They will be her greatest asset. Moreover, DeVos’s job will be easier today than it would have been six or seven years ago because ed reformers have made headway in substituting the appealing word ‘choice’ for vouchers and privatization.”

Barkan views the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), created by Bill Clinton in 1994, and since then condemned by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General in a series of biennial reports for poor record keeping and lax oversight, as the model DeVos will copy for promoting additional federal privatization efforts: “The CSP makes three-year grants available to states on a competitive basis for the purpose of opening or expanding charter schools according to each state’s existing laws. Thus the program subsidizes charter expansion without micromanaging policy… For strategically thinking privatizers, the beauty of the CSP is that it avoids the curse of federal overreach. Relatively small, out of the national limelight, it has steadily increased the scope of charter schools without producing much of a backlash.”

When Congress passed the December 2015, reauthorization of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Republican majority prohibited some of the federal Department of Education’s power to incentivize states to adopt federal programs, as a protest to what many Republicans perceived as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s overreach. Some of those constraints are likely to be removed, however, by an all-Republican Congress and a President Trump promoting their own priorities. A bigger question is where the money would come from for the federal privatization block grants Trump and DeVos are known to support.  The only two large funding streams through the U.S. Department of Education are for Title I (to support schools serving poor children) and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both programs already suffer from long-term under-funding.

Barkan closes her article by challenging American citizens to be active stakeholders in public education: “The only counterweight to ‘choice’ is excellent public schools, and so the only way to save public education (which is largely very good in the United States) is to improve it where it needs improvement. Hundreds of thousands of public school teachers and administrators commit themselves to the task everyday. The job also belongs to everyone who sees the need to rebuild American democracy. In the face of privatization, we are all stakeholders in the public good that is public education.”

DeVos Hearing Today: Why the Senate Should Not Confirm Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary

Late this afternoon the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will hold the confirmation hearing on President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education.

This blog has extensively explored Betsy DeVos’s commitment to breaking the bond between government and education through the expansion of vouchers and unregulated charter schools. As she declared in a speech last year, “Government really sucks.” But there are additional reasons to be very concerned about Betsy DeVos’ record.

A brief from People for the American Way summarizes the national organizations which Betsy DeVos has founded or on whose boards of directors she served until she resigned from those positions when she was nominated as Education Secretary: “Betsy DeVos is… the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board.  DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s foundation).  Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice.  The foundation is listed as a supporter of Campbell Brown’s The 74 website. Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children further connects the DeVos family to right-wing corporate reform groups; it is listed as an education partner of the right-wing-fueled National School Choice Week Campaign…. School Choice Week is intentionally designed to blur the very real and significant differences between policies that fall under the broad banner of ‘school choice.’  There’s a huge difference between a school district offering magnet schools and the diversion of funds away from school districts to for-profit cyberschools, but National School Choice Week treats them… with a ‘collective messaging’ approach that hides the anti-public-education agendas of some education ‘reformers’ by wrapping them all together in the language of parental empowerment and student opportunity.”

Betsy DeVos’s involvement in national organizations that seek to privatize education is more widely understood than her role in Michigan politics affecting education. Over the weekend, POLITICO published Zack Stanton’s in-depth profile of the DeVos family and their deliberate and growing domination of Michigan’s public life: “Thanks to the DeVoses, Michigan’s charter schools enjoy a virtually unregulated existence. Thanks to them, too, the center of the American automotive industry and birthplace of the modern labor movement is now a right-to-work state. They’ve funded campaigns to elect state legislators, established advocacy organizations to lobby them, buttressed their allies and primaried those they disagree with, spending at at least $100 million on political campaigns and causes over the years.”

Betsy DeVos and the legislature in which she has invested have imported the questionable education programs advocated by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education—the Third Grade Guarantee, which holds students back in third grade until they pass a reading test at a state established benchmark score—and A-F grades for schools and school districts based on the aggregate test scores of their students. Both plans ignore what research has demonstrated is a tight correlation between a community’s accumulated family income and the overall test scores of the students.  When such states then impose sanctions on so-called “failing” schools and their teachers and students, the punishments fall most heavily on the schools, teachers and students who need the most help. The greatest problem with the Third-Grade Guarantee, for example, is that students who are held back even in elementary school have been shown to be more likely to drop out  as adolescents.

Stanton explains that sometimes the political strategies undertaken in Michigan  by Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, later became templates for far-right advocacy on a larger scale: “They unveiled a new strategy in 2001…. Instead of direct appeals to voters, the DeVoses would  devote their resources to PACs and nonprofit organizations to push legislators to enact the changes they desired.  Thus, the Great Lakes Education Project, or GLEP, was founded. Initially, few in Michigan knew quite what to make of GLEP. At the time, most PACs were affiliated with membership organizations, like a labor union or chamber of commerce, and focused on issues important to those members. GLEP wasn’t anything like that. It was a largely family-funded effort with a singular focus on education reform; a multipronged structure gave GLEP great latitude to advocate, from lobbying legislators to purchasing attack ads on TV.  In the years since the DeVoses debuted GLEP, we’ve witnessed the nationwide rise of single-issue PACs funded by a small number of extraordinarily wealthy donors, especially since the Citizens United ruling uncorked the dam of corporate money.”

And in Michigan, GLEP has quietly transformed public education: “Today… this constant push has totally remade Michigan education. The cap on the number of charter schools (has been) eliminated and attempts to provide public oversight have been defeated, making Michigan’s charters among the most plentiful and least-regulated in the nation.  About 80 percent of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state.”

DeVos and her husband have also used their power and money to undermine teachers unions. Not only is Betsy DeVos an ally of Campbell Brown and her national effort to destroy the reach of teachers unions, but the DeVoses were instrumental in making Michigan a right-to-work state. As reported by Stanton for POLITICO, right-to-work legislation was introduced in a lame duck session that followed the 2012 election. Governor Rick Snyder had initially told labor leaders he was unsupportive of right-to-work, but, “Over the course of a few days in late November and early December, everything changed. Perhaps it had something to do with the $1.8 million blitz of TV and radio ads promoting right-to-work the DeVoses bankrolled. On December 6, eight days after Snyder met with labor leaders, the governor flipped on the issue… Right-to-work passed by a handful of  votes…. The legislation was amended to include a small appropriation, which meant that once signed, it would be impossible for voters to repeal by public referendum.”

Massachusetts education reporter and blogger Jennifer Berkshire just spent a week in Michigan to get an on-the-ground response to DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education from education officials, Michigan politicians, and even the director of one of the many agencies the state allows to authorize charter schools.  Berkshire describes what she learned about the DeVos influence in the legislature: “A characteristic DeVos move in Lansing traces a familiar pattern. A piece of legislation suddenly appears courtesy of a family ally. It pops up late in the session, late at night, or better still, during lame duck, when the usual legislative horse trading shifts into overdrive.”

Berkshire explains how the explosive growth of charter schools along with Michigan’s right-to-work law have damaged the power of Michigan’s teachers unions: “The union leaders I talked to were candid about how devastating the DeVos’ efforts have been.  The unbridled growth of charter schools, almost all of which are non-union, means that new teachers in the state are far less likely to be union members.  In Detroit, for example, the once powerful Detroit Federation of Teachers is down to just 3,000 members from more than 9,000 a decade ago, while fully half of the teachers in the city are unorganized.  Meanwhile, an array of new legislation has taken direct aim at the machinery of how unions are run… The DeVos’s target is the unions’ political war chest, and here too their handiwork has had its desired effect.  With fewer resources to draw upon, the Michigan Education Association and the far smaller American Federation of Teachers, have less to give to candidates and to political campaigns, to canvassing operations and phone banks, to get out the vote efforts and signs.  During the most recent political cycle, the DeVos family outspent the two largest unions in the state, the UAW and MEA, by a wide margin.”

While the American Federation for Children PAC emphasizes “children” in its name, and while many of Betsy DeVos’s supporters describe her as devoted to the welfare of children, Berkshire concludes that the DeVos’ agenda in Michigan is instead broadly political: “(A)s I heard repeatedly during the week I recently spent crisscrossing the state, speaking with dozens of Michiganders, including state and local officials, the radical experiment that’s playing out here has little to do with education, and even less to do with kids.  The real goal of the DeVos family is to crush the state’s teachers unions as a means of undermining the Democratic party, weakening Michigan’s democratic structures along the way. And on this front, our likely next Secretary of Education has enjoyed measurable, even dazzling success.”

The Senate HELP Committee has scheduled its hearing on Betsy DeVos as the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon at 5:00 PM.  After the hearing and within the next few days the full Senate will vote on her confirmation. Plenty of time remains for you to call your Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos. Please take the time to share your opposition to Betsy DeVos with your Senators’ staffs.  They are counting the phone calls they receive.

Samuel Abrams, Expert on School Privatization, Condemns Business Strategy of Betsy DeVos

President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos are all devotees of the privatization of public education. That’s the reason it is so fascinating to read Samuel Abrams’ analysis of their ideas about federal education policy.  Samuel Abrams is the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. And just last year he published Education and the Commercial Mindset, a book about the failure of Edison Schools and the challenges faced by KIPP along with some other charter school networks.

Abrams is not an ideologue and in the book as he concludes his in-depth examination of KIPP schools, he doesn’t reject the idea of charter schools out of hand—nor, unlike many other critics, does he reject the punitive, behavior-modification discipline that dominates many of these schools. But he cautions there are no quick or simple ways to solve the problems poverty poses for our children, our schools and our society. Here is how he concludes the book: “Organizations like Achievement First, KIPP, and Mastery do great work despite the force of poverty, but their dependence on a finite supply of generous philanthropists, tireless teachers, and students as well as families capable of abiding by rigid academic and behavioral expectations limits their reach. These organizations have led the way in showing what can be accomplished for a subset of students by granting administrators significant autonomy, extending the school day, providing intensive remedial help, and raising expectations. The next step is to make these strategies work for all students in disadvantaged communities. Such replication would necessitate substantial public investment to hire additional staff. The result would ultimately comport with the community school concept, with afternoon programs in art, music, crafts, sports, and homework help as well as associated medical, dental, and counseling services. This paradigm would be all the more successful if schools were granted the freedom to broaden their curricula. That could happen if we reversed course and abolished our current accountability system, which we undoubtedly should… Much of our mistaken thinking about education policy derives from our commercial mindset.” (Education and the Commercial Mindset, p. 303)

So, what does Samuel Abrams think about the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education?  Last weekend he told us in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times: “Donald Trump never tires of reminding us that he is a businessman, and in Betsy DeVos, he has nominated a Secretary of Education who endorses a business model for improving elementary and secondary schooling. The problem is it’s the wrong model. DeVos’ prescriptions include for-profit school management, taxpayer-funded vouchers to cover private school tuition and parental choice as the primary vehicle for regulation.  Yet where such free-market remedies have been tried, they have yielded disappointing results.”

As evidence, Abrams examines the case of Chile in the thirty years since privatization was expanded in the 1980s: “Socioeconomic segregation… intensified, the academic achievement gap among disadvantaged children and their middle-and upper-class peers persisted, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay remained low.”  He also examines Sweden, where a “full-fledged voucher system” was adopted in the 1990s: “When investors financed the opening of hundreds of for-profit private schools there, many native-born Swedes opted for the new schools, leaving immigrant children behind. Sweden’s performance on international educational assessments declined, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay fell.”

Abrams traces America’s interest in school privatization to Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who suggested in a 1955 essay that education is a commodity like groceries. Abrams counters: “The fundamental problem with the free-market model for education is that schools are not groceries.”  On vouchers, Abrams explains: “Only a few cities in the U.S. implemented voucher systems, but results in these cities—notably, Milwaukee, leading the way in 1990, followed by Cleveland and Washington—have… not vindicated Friedman’s forecast.”  Neither have charter schools—publicly funded but privately managed—improved education. Charter schools have, “posted uneven results, led to greater student segregation and in large part depressed teacher pay.  In no state has this been more true than DeVos’ home state, Michigan, which thanks to her efforts is home to far more commercially managed charter schools than any state in the country. After controlling for demographics, Michigan, according to a recent Urban Institute study, ranks 47th of all states in reading and math.”

Why does a school choice marketplace not work very well?  “Education is complex and the immediate consumer, after all, is a child or adolescent who can know only so much about how a subject should be taught. The parent, legislator and taxpayer are necessarily at a distance. Groceries, by contrast, are discrete goods purchased by adults who can easily judge each item according to taste, nutritional value and cost. Supermarkets can likewise be easily judged according to service, atmosphere and convenience.”

The Long Shadow of Poverty and School Segregation by Income

One of the serious problems posed by the likely Trump administration’s policy on public education is that it sidesteps entirely the deeply troubling challenges on the ground for children and their teachers.  While the only education idea being mentioned by the new administration is the rapid expansion of privatization—a kind of school choice which has shown itself not only to be unavailable to the poorest children but also threatening to the financial stability of the public schools in the poorest communities, there is indisputable evidence that the standardized test scores by which we now judge schools derive far more from poverty and economic segregation than the school teachers we are blaming.  Yet addressing poverty both outside the school and inside has slipped off the radar as, once again, the proposal to privatize is being prescribed as a remedy.

Last fall’s issue of the Russell Sage Journal, The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later (Vol 2, No 5) calls our attention back to the matter we need to be considering. The journal is edited by Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist who authored a longitudinal study reaching back to the 1982 first grade year of a group of Baltimore’s young adults: The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. Alexander introduces the collection of articles with a short history of 50 years of research on the topics of The Coleman Report: Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right.  His topic and the subject of all the studies in this journal is to further untangle and identify the many strands of the opportunity gap across our nation’s schools.

Alexander explains that The Coleman Report, published in 1966, has been misconstrued over the years by those who have used it to prove that “schools make no difference” and to insist that we accept a binary explanation for school achievement as driven (or held back)  by either the school or the family.

Here, according to Alexander is what may be fairly concluded from the 1966 research of James Coleman and his colleagues: Family background is of great importance for school achievement; the influence of the family does not appear to diminish over the child’s school years. Neither the impact of one school or another nor the impact of facilities nor the impact of curriculum is as great as the impact of the student’s family background. Of in-school factors that matter to children, the teacher is the most important.  Finally, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

Overall, writes Alexander as he summarizes the meaning of The Coleman Report: “Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: The schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.”  Alexander elaborates: “In fact, school influence on children’s achievement is so deeply embedded in children’s family life that they hardly are separate.  These tight linkages across institutional contexts additionally imply that the social organization of schooling, as constructed back then and still today, functions mainly to maintain or reproduce children’s place in the social order. To illustrate, in 2005 nationally, poor students were in the majority in 84 percent of schools with minority enrollments of 90 to 100 percent; in schools with minority enrollments of 10 percent or less, just 18 percent of schools had majority low-poverty enrollments.  The insight that the social composition of the student body is the strongest school-based correlate of student achievement, independent of the child’s family background, pinpoints the particular mechanism that channels family influence through the school: neighborhood residential segregation… High poverty neighborhoods and high-poverty schools are population aggregates.  Their properties do not inhere in any single family, and they have consequences beyond those located at the interior of family life… As the national commitment to school desegregation has waned, segregation at the school level has increased…”

Alexander briefly reviews five decades of research on the effects of family, school, and neighborhood (including residential segregation) and summarizes: “Attempts to parse the ‘whether’ of school versus family seek a definitive answer, but this false dichotomy fundamentally misconstrues the backdrop to children’s learning.  Family matters, to be sure, but school also matters, and it is how the two intersect that sets children on their developmental paths… In generating opportunity, family and school are indeed in tension, but it is a tension not captured in the ‘school versus family’ framing…. (W)hat counts is the balance between private family resources and public resources in support of children’s learning.  At present, the private and public resources invested in children’s schooling are highly unequal, and they favor families of means.”

Alexander adds, however, that even the poorest schools are positively impacting the lives and learning of their students: “But it also needs to be said that schools do not simply reinforce patterns of family advantage and disadvantage. Rather, poor children fall behind when their learning depends on the sparse resources available to them at home and in their communities. Their schools, even those burdened by concentrated poverty, help them to keep up academically. From research on summer learning loss we learn that the portion of school influence that is separable from family serves to lift up poor children, not hold them back.”

Senate Hearing on Betsy DeVos Delayed as Ethical Questions and Concerns about Ideology Persist

The confirmation hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has been delayed until next Tuesday, January 17 at 5:00 PM.  That hearing had been scheduled to begin this morning, but it was delayed after Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee, demanded the postponement in hopes that the Office of Government Ethics can complete its review of the finances of Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Michigan-based philanthropist.

As the Congress and the press explore the complicated financial records of Betsy DeVos and her husband, it is becoming clear that the delay will make it possible not only for the Senators who are responsible for considering DeVos’s nomination but also for the public to learn more about the person Trump has nominated to oversee the nation’s public schools.

Several Senate Democrats including Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown are using the postponement to renew their demand that, before her hearing, Betsy DeVos pay fines accruing from 2008 to the Ohio Elections Commission.  Her All Children Matter PAC, a group that has pretty much shut down, still owes the Ohio Elections Commission $5.3 million in unpaid fines imposed by the Commission when All Children Matter’s national PAC illegally laundered contributions from Ohioans that exceeded Ohio’s legal limits back through its Ohio affiliate to Ohio politicians.

Yesterday the editorial board of the NY Times raised serious ethical concerns: “As the Senate races forward with confirmation hearings this week, the spottiest disclosures have come from wealthy private-sector nominees with no governing experience and many potential conflicts. In other words, the people most in need of a complete ethics review. Exhibit A is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and education lobbyist… Ms. DeVos’s finances are a tangle that could take weeks to investigate… People who have seen her financial disclosures so far say that Ms. DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, have investments in some 250 companies registered to a single Grand Rapids, Mich., address…. Already… there are reports that the DeVoses are indirect investors in Social Finance Inc., a private company that refinances student loans.  Private lenders like Social Finance are banned from most of the direct student lending market; their lobbyists have already written to the Trump transition team pitching to change that….”

The editorial continues: “Ms. De Vos also faces a big challenge in explaining the damage she’s done to public education in her home state, Michigan. She has poured money into charter school advocacy, winning legislative changes that have reduced oversight and accountability. About 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, far higher than anywhere else.  She has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers…. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.”

Yesterday’s NY Times editorial followed reporter Noam Scheiber’s blockbuster exploration of not only the DeVos’s lavish and complicated financial and lobbying record but also their ruthless political tactics: “In announcing his intention to nominate Ms. DeVos, Mr. Trump described her as a ‘brilliant and passionate education advocate.’ Even critics characterized her as a dedicated, if misguided, activist for school reform. But that description understates both the breadth of Ms. DeVos’s political interests and the influence she wields as part of her powerful family. More than anyone else who has joined the incoming Trump administration, she represents the combination of wealth, free-market ideology and political hardball associated with a better-known family of billionaires: Charles and David Koch… Like the Kochs, the DeVoses are generous supporters of think tanks that evangelize for unrestrained capitalism, like Michigan’s Acton Institute, and that rail against unions and back privatizing public services, like the Mackinac Center. They have also funded national groups dedicated to cutting back the role of government, including the National Center for Policy Analysis (which has pushed for Social Security privatization and against environmental regulation) and the Institute for Justice (which challenges regulations in court and defends school vouchers.) Both organizations have also received money from the Koch family.”

Scheiber continues: “Indeed, the DeVoses’ education activism, which favors alternatives to traditional public schools, appears to derive from the same free-market views that inform their suspicion of government. And perhaps more than other right-wing billionaires the DeVoses couple their seeding of ideological causes with an aggressive brand of political spending. Half a dozen or more extended family members frequently coordinate contributions to maximize their impact. In the 2016 cycle alone, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the family spent roughly $14 million on political contributions to state and national candidates, parties, PACs and super PACs.”

Scheiber quotes Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University political scientist, describing Betsy DeVos: “She is the most emblematic kind of oligarchic figure you can put in a cabinet position. What she and the Kochs have in common is the unbridled use of wealth power to achieve whatever political goals they have.”

Organizations that work on behalf of the public interest are also weighing in. On Monday of this week the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 national organizations, wrote to members of the U.S. Senate to explain the concerns of its member organizations: “All parents… in this country—a majority of whom are of color or are low-income—want the best education, support and dignity for their own children. We stand with them and cannot support a nominee who has demonstrated that she seeks to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself… We reject the notion that children are well served by the dismantling of a public school system that serves 90 percent of all American students or by the elimination of civil rights protections that require the federal government to intervene when students are discriminated against.”

The Leadership Conference’s letter continues: “While parent frustration with schools failing to meet their child’s needs is real and parents have waited far too long for meaningful action by policy makers, the result of anti-public education agendas such as DeVos’ has often, as in Louisiana, been worse outcomes for vulnerable students. The Michigan example, where DeVos’ impact on education policy and the proliferation of unregulated and for-profit charter schools is considerable, demonstrates clearly that this agenda does not result in the improved outcomes students, parents, and communities deserve.”

The Leadership Conference concludes with a reminder that a primary responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education is through its Office of Civil Rights:  “While she (Betsy DeVos) is entitled to her personal views as a private citizen, government officials are charged with enforcing our laws equally… The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for implementing and enforcing laws protecting students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and disability, and those laws that provide for educational opportunity from early childhood through graduate school. The person responsible for leading that department must absolutely be committed to respecting, valuing and protecting every single student in this country—without regard to LGBTQI status, family income, race, home language, gender, religion, disability, or immigration status.  Our nation’s laws, economy, future and children deserve no less.”

Mitt Romney Speaks Up for Governance by Plutocrats

Mitt Romney had a preposterous op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend.  He suggests that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire, is ideally qualified to be U.S. Secretary of Education because she is so rich she doesn’t stand to benefit from any kind of future employment in a public school.

Romney’s argument is that the One Percent ought to be in charge of making public education policy, because unlike the the rest of us, billionaires lack the bias that might be carried by somebody who needed work—as a schoolteacher, for example. While the rest of us might worry that Betsy DeVos lacks relevant experience as a public school student or public school parent or public school teacher, and lacks training in pedagogy or school administration, Romney believes her vast wealth is her best qualification for the job:  “Essentially, it’s a debate between those in the education establishment who support the status quo because they have a financial stake in the system and those who seek to challenge the status quo because it’s not serving kids well… First, it’s important to have someone who isn’t financially biased shaping education. As a highly successful businesswoman, DeVos doesn’t need the job now, nor will she be looking for an education job later.”

Profiling DeVos in the Washington Post, Emma Brown describes the political giving of the DeVos family. In contrast to Mitt Romney, Brown explains that Betsy DeVos is biased: DeVos has a financial stake in a clear political agenda that has for decades been represented by her and her husband’s political giving. Brown reports that DeVos told Roll Call in 1997: “that she had decided ‘to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”

Romney also claims there is substantial academic research proving that charter schools in Michigan—where Dick and Betsy DeVos have invested millions of dollars in lobbying against responsible state oversight of charters—are academically surpassing their public school counterparts.  In December Stephen Henderson, editorial page director of the Detroit Free Press, penned a column about the very research Romney describes.  Henderson contradicts Romney’s interpretation of the research. Comparing the academic record of Michigan’s charter schools and traditional public schools, Henderson reports that research conclusions are much more nuanced and complex: “For 20 years, DeVos and her family have funded a charter school lobby that protects the industry from reasonable oversight and accountability, in part, through gross exaggeration and fibs of omission about school research. In their telling, charter schools have achieved great success in Michigan and especially Detroit. They’ve transformed public education.  But the data—even the data that DeVos’ lobby so often cites—tell a different story. They show that charter schools do not substantially outperform public schools, and even where they do, the difference is so slight that it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about what it means. It’s another facet of DeVos’s unfitness for the job president-elect Donald Trump has nominated her to do. Research is a key component of the nation’s education infrastructure, and that research has been telling us for years that charter schools in Michigan have not yet delivered on their promises.”

In a column for Lafayette, Indiana’s  Journal and Courier, Ed Eiler, Lafayette’s retired school superintendent, presents the strongest rationale for confronting Romney’s bizarre column as well as opposing Betsy DeVos’s political philosophy that glorifies school choice: “In his book, Justice, Michael Sandell makes the observation that, during the past 30 years, we have moved from being a market economy to a market society, where increasingly everything is being turned into a commodity and is for sale to the highest bidder. Sandell contends that when dealing with material goods, a market economy is a valuable and productive tool, but we should not trust markets with our civic lives. He observes that economists assume markets are inert and do not touch or taint the goods they exchange.  This assumption may be true of material goods but may not be true for non-material goods and social practices related to education, health care, politics, law and civic life… The question is how do we want to live together?  Do we want a society where everything is up for sale or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

Late last night, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reported that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s  confirmation hearing on Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has been delayed until Tuesday, January 17, because, “the Office of Government Ethics, which has said it is overwhelmed by vetting Trump’s nominees, has not yet completed its review of DeVos’s financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest.”

The delay means that DeVos’s hearing will not be jammed together on the same day as numerous other confirmation hearings along with a major press conference by the President-elect. The delay also gives those of us who believe Betsy DeVos is unqualified to be Secretary of Education a little more time to make our calls and encourage colleagues and friends to do so. Please continue to make phone calls to the offices of your Senators and to the offices of the Senate HELP Committee.

We must continue to raise questions about DeVos’s disdain for government and public service, her dogged belief in competition and marketplace school choice, and her distrust of the public school system that serves 50 million children across the United States. That’s the system the Secretary of Education is expected to oversee.

Please Take a Minute Today to Call Both of Your Senators to Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP ) Committee’s confirmation hearing on Betsy Devos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, is scheduled for this coming Wednesday, January 11.

Today I am privileged to be part of a small group who will deliver a statement from a number of organizations to the local offices here in Cleveland of U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.  I am delighted we’ll have the opportunity to talk with a staff person in our Senators’ local offices about why we believe Betsy DeVos is the wrong person to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

This blog has covered extensively all the reasons why Betsy DeVos—a billionaire philanthropist who has devoted her life and her money to opposing public schools and lobbying for school privatization through expanding vouchers and unregulated charter schools—should not be confirmed to lead the U.S. Department that oversees Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Even if you have signed onto one of the many online petitions that are circulating to oppose the DeVos nomination, please make a phone call today to the offices of your two Senators. Tell the person who answers the phone that you oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. The staff people in these offices are counting the phone calls they receive to support or to oppose confirmation of each nomination by President-elect Trump.

Make the phone call even if your Senator does not serve on the Senate HELP Committee, which is conducting this week’s hearing. DeVos’s confirmation will come before the entire U.S. Senate for a vote.

The Network for Public Education’s Campaign to Say ‘No’ to Betsy DeVos provides a toolkit including the phone numbers of the offices of all U.S. Senators. In the Network for Public Education’s toolkit, you will also find a couple of short sample scripts to help you when you make the call.

I will share that when I asked my own adult children who now live in other states to make calls to the offices of their Senators to oppose the DeVos confirmation, they didn’t even accuse me of nagging. They attended public schools and graduated from a public high school to which they are very loyal. They are determined that Betsy DeVos must not threaten public education, the institution that has been so important to them.  They even asked some of their friends and colleagues to make calls.