It seemed to me that Emma Brown’s huge article in yesterday’s Washington Post on Betsy DeVos and the kind of marketplace she says she’ll promote as Secretary of Education was a lavishly wrapped holiday gift for promoters of school choice.
Traditional public schools are never mentioned in this story that traces the disagreements among supporters of vouchers and charters. Brown begins by setting up the story as though teachers unions are the singular opponents of school choice. Of course, disagreement within the movement for school privatization is Brown’s topic, but she neglects even to remind us that charter schools today serve only 6.6 percent of America’s publicly funded schools.
Brown describes all the worrying by proponents of vouchers and charters. How will the Trump-DeVos approach affect the movement for marketplace school choice in general? Will Trump and DeVos ruin the movement by splitting apart the proponents of vouchers and charters? We hear from Robin Lake, who leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education which has created a network of districts practicing “portfolio school reform”: “Will the new administration love school choice to death?” We are informed by Greg Forster, a senior fellow at EdChoice that, “Two sides have now become this fragmented landscape.” And Howard Fuller, an early and long proponent of vouchers, worries that Betsy DeVos will wake up supporters of public schools: “(C)learly there’s going to be a lot of antagonism. People who oppose parent choice will seek everything they can find to say that that this is not a policy that can be pursued.”
Brown describes the reactions of promoters of publicly funded charter schools and vouchers to the idea that such schools ought to be regulated to protect the public investment and the academic needs of the children enrolled. Brown neglects the huge question of whether it is possible to impose oversight over a sector supported by powerful philanthropic political contributors like Betsy DeVos and those who are earning huge profits in the charter sector. Ironically Brown looks closely at Michigan, where Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist, has been personally involved in this question, and Brown interviews Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), a pro-privatization lobbying organization founded by Dick and Betsy DeVos. Naeyaert is described by Brown as saying that Betsy DeVos is a great proponent for regulation and oversight of charter schools: “(H)e disputed the charge that she advocates against accountability for charter schools. Naeyaert said GLEP—and, by extension, DeVos—believe in accountability for charter schools, as long as traditional public schools have to live by the same rules.” What Brown neglects to remind her readers is the well documented fact that the Great Lakes Education Project lobbied successfully to excise a charter school regulation agency, the Detroit Education Commission, from the Detroit Public Schools bailout legislation last summer. Naeyaert and his patrons, Dick and Betsy DeVos themselves blocked regulation and oversight. The Michigan senate and the governor had supported the creation of this agency to provide at least some oversight of charter schools, but when the DeVos family supplemented lobbying by GLEP with $1.45 million in contributions to legislators, Michigan’s house of representatives killed the plan to regulate Detroit’s out of control charter sector.
So who are these people who, in Howard Fuller’s words, “oppose parent choice (and) will seek everything they can find to say that that this is not a policy that can be pursued”? They would be us—the majority of families across America’s towns and neighborhoods whose children, grandchildren, and neighbors’ children are enrolled in the public schools. They would also be the millions of school teachers and principals and counselors and school nurses who work with our children and adolescents. It isn’t fair to write off all of these dedicated professionals as though they are merely a lobby, though it is a good thing in these times when our society tends to blame and scapegoat school teachers that they do have organizations to speak up for their needs.
Emma Brown’s Washington Post article is best read in contrast to Arthur Camin’s powerful piece from the Huffington Post, Don’t Let the Government Take Away Your Public School. Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He has also served as a school teacher and administrator, and he is an outspoken proponent of the nation’s system of public schools.
In his recent piece he exhorts us: “Donald Trump has made it clear. He wants to take away your public school. Tell him, ‘Keep the government’s hands off our public schools!'” “In the fiery debates leading up the the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) the phrase, ‘Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare,’ became emblematic of the unnerving juxtaposition of citizens influenced by decades of conservative anti-government rhetoric and the public’s love affair with certain government-run, taxpayer-funded programs.”
Camins believes we must support public education despite its imperfection: “Many need improvement, but it is democratically governed public schools that have made America great—not private schools and not charter schools. We all know that we can love what is imperfect. We need to strengthen the marriage between public schools and equity, not a divorce… Make no mistake. Profit and exclusivity will trump quality and inclusiveness. Privatization means working class children get less and the wealthy keep getting more.”
How does the paradox work? “In short, in the name of liberty and freedom, the modern conservative movement represents an exaltation of selfishness. Since the empowered want to maintain their privileges, the real intent behind, ‘Don’t let the government tell you what to do’ is, ‘We know best. Leave it to us.’… A striking example is the growing campaign to shift federal and state funding from public schools to charter schools and private schools through vouchers. Sadly, the former has been supported by many Democrats, while the latter has been the long-held dream of, ‘competition solves everything,’ Republicans and those seeking to tear down our historic church-state barriers.”
Camins concludes: “We are at a crossroads. Integration, diversity, and democracy are under attack as unifying national priorities here in the U.S. and around the world… We have a lot to do to improve education in the U.S. Inequity is persistent… Our great challenge ahead for education as with other critical features of community wellbeing is to find the language and solutions to mobilize people across their perceived disparate needs to find common cause. ‘Don’t let the government take away your public school,’ may be a place to start.”