The timing of School Choice Week, which generally occurs late in January, is coincidentally auspicious this year for the woman who has funded its founding organization, the Alliance for School Choice, and who has also chaired the organization’s board of directors. If crowds in matched t-shirts and yellow scarves have been parading around your town celebrating school privatization and Betsy DeVos this week, it’s important to realize it wasn’t a spontaneous rally.
In the Washington Post, Emma Brown describes the kind of rally you may have noticed and why it happened this week: “National School Choice Week, a celebration of charter schools, private schools, home schooling and other education options, could not have fallen at a more opportune time for DeVos. The annual effort, held this year between Jan. 22 and Jan. 28, includes thousands of events around the country that bring together people who largely see DeVos not as a threat to pubic education, as her critics have framed her, but as a champion of extending more choices to more parents.” There was a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday and, according to Brown, 21,000 events were scheduled around the country.
Twenty-one thousand events promoting her pet idea must feel like a blessing to Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation as our next U.S. Secretary of Education will be voted on by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee next Tuesday morning, January 31, at 10 o’clock. After all, she did poorly in her confirmation hearing on January 17-–flubbing a question about measuring academic growth or benchmark proficiency—one of the key controversies in the debate about test-based school accountability—and another about the federal government’s role in enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It has also been widely reported that DeVos has had no formal training in education. Neither has she attended a public school nor educated her children there. And she has never been a teacher.
And there are some other concerns.
First, a PAC Betsy DeVos led ten years ago that is now dormant, All Children Matter, Inc., has failed to pay a $5.3 million fine to the Ohio Elections Commission. The fine was imposed because her PAC helped launder funds that broke the state’s legal giving limitation to Ohio lawmakers who support the privatization of education through vouchers and charters. While DeVos is not personally legally liable for paying the fine, POLITICO exposed on Tuesday that DeVos did pay the lawyer who handled the case—but not the fine itself: “All Children Matter, Inc., along with two of its affiliated political action committees…. haven’t paid the elections fine, which includes a $25-per-day late fee dating back to when the fine was first levied, in 2008. But with DeVos’ help, the group paid $28,500 to an Indiana law firm after a judge found the group liable in 2013. The Indiana attorney assisting the group was Jim Bopp—the attorney who spearheaded the landmark Citizens United case. DeVos was not personally named in the case, but she was director of the group for more than a decade, until November when President Donald Trump tapped her to lead the Education Department.”
And second, there is Neurocore, the company from which Betsy DeVos refuses to divest, if her appointment as U.S. Education Secretary is confirmed. An article in the NY Times business section explains: “Ms. DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., are major financial backers of Neurocore, a Michigan company that operates drug-free ‘brain performance centers’ that claim to have worked with 10,000 children and adults to overcome problems with attention deficit disorder, autism, sleeplessness and stress. In an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics… Ms. DeVos said that she had stepped down from the Neurocore board but that she would retain her financial interest in the company. She valued that stake at $5 million to $25 million in her financial disclosure statement.”
Mitchell Robinson, an education professor at Michigan State University and blogger, believes this is a scam miracle cure: “While Ms. DeVos believes that biofeedback is a valuable strategy for addressing ADHD, medical experts are not at all convinced that this disorder can be effectively diagnosed, or treated through electroencephalography. A 2013 article in The Detroit News questioned the efficacy of diagnostic testing for A.D.H.D., citing an article in the American Academy of Pediatrics News that suggested more research was needed. The medical research here doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Neurocore’s advertising pitch: In its marketing materials, Neurocore makes a direct pitch to parents, featuring the personal stories of numerous children in YouTube videos and offering tips on Twitter about helping students focus at school.” Robinson quotes the person named as Neurocore’s chief medical officer: “Still, Dr. Fotuhi expressed confidence in the field. ‘It’s in its infancy,’ he said, ‘but I can envision in the coming years, we’ll have objective data’… He said Neurocore had recently begun analyzing its data and results and would be published soon in a scientific journal.”
One of the things that makes Neurocore controversial, besides that it is unproven as a cure for Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder or any of the other ailments which it promises to alleviate, is that it is expensive, and profits for the company’s owners are involved. The potential profit-making makes Massachusetts education writer and blogger Jennifer Berkshire especially skeptical about Neurocore because the victims are parents desperate to help their children who have been diagnosed with ADHD: “(B)rain retraining doesn’t come cheap. Collecting qEEG data to identify neurological weakness, developing a personalized brain performance plan and restoring the brain to optimal functionality, all the while being monitored in a brain room will set you back $2200—which may or may not be covered by insurance… But wait—good news: Neorocore is now partnering with Prosper Healthcare Lending to assist clients with program financing.” And here is another promise: “Amway employees and their families are now eligible for a Neurocore Diagnostic Brain Assessment for $100 off the regular price….”
The coincidence of School Choice Week during DeVos’s confirmation process calls attention to Betsy DeVos’s real mission. Here is how People for the American Way describes the purpose of School Choice Week: “It’s all about putting a shiny, happy face on school privatization efforts, complete with bright yellow scarves for kids, an ‘official’ dance to be performed at local events, and national publicity support for what organizers say will be more than 20,000 events this January… more than 2,000 of them led by homeschooling groups… 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 all the same 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.”
Bertis Downs, a Georgia attorney and public school parent, reflects on School Choice Week in a piece published by Valerie Strauss: “Much of this makes me wonder why our elected leaders don’t embrace the ‘first choice’ so many parents and teachers advocate: the improvement of all public schools so that there are excellent schools in every neighborhood in America. After all, the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren attend public schools. Why aren’t ‘community schools’—which seek to address the many out-of-school factors that affect achievement—a leading reform choice? Could it be that those are public school models that don’t profit anyone other than the communities of students they educate?”