While public schools across the United States are the quintessential institution of the Ninety-Nine Percent, for years now public policy has been driven by the ideas of the One Percent. Nobody exemplifies this ironic contradiction better than the woman nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as our next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She is the founder and chair of the board of the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, and she leads the All Children Matter PAC. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick lead the Great Lakes Education Project, the organization behind the massive growth of unregulated—and mostly for-profit—charter schools that are now known to have contributed to the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. DeVos is also a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll describes the political influence of the Michigan DeVos family: “The DeVoses sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”
Here is Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: “(I)t would be hard to find a better representative of the “donor class” than the DeVos, whose family has been allied with Charles and David Koch for years. Betsy, her husband Richard, Jr. (Dick), and her father-in-law, Richard, Sr., whose fortune was estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.1 billion, have turned up repeatedly on lists of attendees at the Kochs’ donor summits, and as contributors to the brothers’ political ventures. In 2010, Charles Koch described Richard DeVos, Sr., as one of thirty-two “great partners” who had contributed a million dollars or more to the tens of millions of dollars that the Kochs planned to spend in that year’s campaign cycle.”
Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are One Percenters, and both are proponents of the privatization of education —vouchers by which children carry tax dollars to pay tuition at parochial or private schools, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. States and the federal government, pushed by far-right politicians and advocates like the DeVos family, have been trying out both forms of privatization since the 1990s, long enough that there is now a body of evidence to compare the performance of privatized schools to that of the local public schools and to see how their presence is affecting the school districts in which they are situated.
For example, University of Illinois professors of education Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, researching the quality of mathematics instruction in public, private, and privatized schools, published a book (2014) demonstrating, that because public schools employ curriculum staff exposed to the best current research and because certified teachers are trained in up-to-date theory at teachers colleges, there is a Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage, pp xvii-xviii)
Even the proponents of school choice have begun raising questions. Robin Lake leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the organization that has made its name by promoting “portfolio school reform,” a theory that school districts ought to be managed as a business portfolio—shedding failing schools and opening new charters in an environment of perpetual market churn. Robin Lake went to Detroit in 2014 to observe how all this is working in the environment that has long been promoted by Michigan’s biggest charter school advocates—including Betsy DeVos. Here is how Lake described what she saw: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”
And in Detroit, the DeVos family has helped ensure that charter schools remain unregulated. Last May and June (2016) as the Michigan legislature worked on a plan to save the Detroit School District, made virtually bankrupt partly by the massive expansion of school choice, even Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed to the creation of a Detroit Education Commission as part of the plan. The Commission’s role was going to be guiding the location of any new charter schools to ensure there remain quality schools in all of the city’s neighborhoods and to help regulate the worst charter schools out of existence. It seemed the plan would be approved by the legislature until the DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project unleashed its lobbyists and $1.45 million in political contributions to members of the Michigan House, who then soundly eliminated the Commission from the Detroit Schools’ rescue plan. Believing in the power of the market as the sole source of accountability, Betsy and Dick DeVos purchased the obliteration of meaningful charter school oversight in Detroit.
Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, has watched as the School District of Philadelphia has been undermined by the rapid expansion of charters, just as Detroit has suffered. He explains: “Take a look at Detroit — Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call “school choice.” The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits — aided by the failure of a charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight — and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among Michigan’s worst 5 percent of schools… The president-elect’s endorsement of a radical “school choice” agenda comes as the Philadelphia School District struggles to find equilibrium after a two-decade charter-school exodus that created massive budget holes and devastated dozens of fading neighborhood schools. During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to re-purpose some $20 billion in federal dollars for school choice spending, to be administered by the states through block grants. Now, DeVos will be the high-profile point person for getting that done.”
Even the bond ratings agencies have begun to consider the impact of the rapid growth of charter schools in big city school districts where rapid expansion of privatized charter schools has sucked money out of the traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of children, and especially children in extreme poverty and those with expensive special needs. Chicago and Detroit are two of the districts where bond ratings have recently been lowered, but more recently Moody’s has been writing about Massachusetts, where, on November 8, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have expanded charters. In a new report, Moody’s celebrates the statewide defeat of Massachusetts Question 2 and in doing so expresses concern about the kind of school privatization that President-elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education have announced as their priority. Shira Schoenberg describes Moody’s new report for the Springfield Republican: “Charter schools tend to proliferate in urban areas where school districts already reflect a degree of underlying economic and fiscal stress that can detract from a city’s ability to deliver competitive services and can prompt students to move to charter schools; this growing competition can sometime create a ‘downward spiral,'” the report stated. “A city that begins to lose students to a charter school can be forced to weaken educational programs because funding is tighter, which then begins to encourage more students to leave which then results in additional losses.”
Betsy DeVos has not always limited her school privatization activity to what is legal. Back in 2006, she helped David Brennan, owner of the notorious, privately held, for-profit, White Hat Charter School management empire to make an illegally large donation to the campaign coffers of Ohio legislators. On his personal blog, Steve Dyer, former Akron Beacon Journal reporter and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, describes what happened: “DeVos has a bad history here in Ohio. In 2006, she allowed David Brennan to launder campaign cash through her All Children Matter PAC. That led to the largest fine ever levied against a candidate or PAC by the Ohio Elections Commission — $5.2 million. By all accounts, that fine was larger than all fines put together.”
The Betsy DeVos nomination has received wide coverage by knowledgeable reporters. For excellent summaries, check out Kate Zernike in the NY Times, and Emma Brown and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.