The irony is stunning. Although Donald Trump was sometimes called a populist during the presidential campaign, his domestic policy agenda features cutting taxes for the rich and cutting back on the policies and institutions that serve the rest of us. Despite that traditional public schools—the schools that serve 90 percent of America’s 50 million children and adolescents— are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent, neither President Trump nor his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos seems to know or care very much about public education. Neither one ever attended a public school; both educated their children in private schools. DeVos is a certified member of the One Percent, and President Trump claims to be a One Percenter, although he has not released his tax returns to prove it. For years now mega-philanthropists have been prescribing education policy, and hedge funders and far-right philanthropists like Betsy DeVos herself have been paying the lobbyists. One Percenters have been driving public policy about the public schools with which they have little experience. BetsyDeVos, our new education secretary, is an extreme case of this trend.
Just as many predicted during her confirmation hearing, last week Betsy DeVos began her first days on the job demonstrating that she has really only one interest and one priority: expanding school choice. She delivered speeches and granted interviews last week. While her comments might seem to be merely platitudes supporting children and education, they all contain the usual school choice rhetoric—language which I’ll highlight here in bold print. When she delivered her first official speech at a conference on public magnet schools, DeVos did not, for example, discuss the historic role of magnet schools for promoting civil rights and school integration as they have in Hartford, Connecticut. Instead she emphasized a school choice nostrum—portability of funding—that a student should be able to carry a little backpack of public funding to whatever school she might choose: “I think all great schools should be highlighted and should be supported. That said, I don’t think we should be as focused necessarily on funding school buildings as much as we should be having a conversation about funding students.”
Writing for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant describes a DeVos interview last week with the DeVos-friendly Detroit News: ‘When asked by Detroit News deputy editorial page editor Ingrid Jacques about what she hopes for her legacy as Secretary, DeVos replies that what she wants most is to ensure her leadership has ‘allowed students across this country, particularly those who are today struggling most, to find and go to a school where they are going to thrive in and grow and become everything they hope to be.'” Bryant also quotes a DeVos radio interview with “Paul W. Smith, a conservative talk show host in Detroit who also occasionally substitutes for Rush Limbaugh… In her radio interview with Smith, DeVos states her goal is to ensure that all schools ‘meet the need of every child that they serve, and in the cases that they don’t, parents and students should have other alternatives.'”
Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, quotes another recent DeVos interview by another conservative radio commentator—Frank Beckmann. Klein explains that DeVos singled out Florida, “as offering a great blueprint for the country.” Here is DeVos in that interview: “I would point to Florida as being the one that has had a variety of options for the longest period of time… Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices.” Klein then paraphrases DeVos and amplifies DeVos’s history as a long ally of school-choice causes: “She noted that 40 percent of the students in Florida go to schools that are different from the one they many be zoned for. The state has one of the nation’s least-restrictive open enrollment laws. DeVos does have some Florida ties. The American Federation for Children, which she chaired before becoming secretary is active in the Sunshine State, and she sat on the board of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence. And two of the folks who have joined DeVos at the department—Josh Venable and Andrew Kossack—each worked for Bush’s foundation or for Bush.”
In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss quotes a DeVos interview last week with Axios: “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t been invented yet.” Strauss continues: “The one thing she said she didn’t expect more of was traditional public schools. As far as the role of the federal government in education, she said: ‘I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play…. I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams—I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.’ But when asked whether there are any other issues in which the federal government should intervene, she said: ‘I can’t think of any now.‘” Strauss quotes DeVos castigating her critics as “hostile to change and to new ideas.”
The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown reported on Saturday that teachers at Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School were incensed when, after visiting their school, DeVos later described them as being “sincere, genuine, dedicated” and “in receive mode.” Brown quotes DeVos’s critique: “They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child… You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.” Brown describes a tweetstorm from the school’s teachers responding to DeVos’s failure to notice their efforts: “The tweetstorm singled out teachers like Jessica Harris, who built Jefferson’s band program ‘from the ground up,’ and Ashley Shepherd and Britany Locher, who not only teach students ranging from a first-to eighth-grade reading level, but also ‘maintain a positive classroom environment focused on rigorous content, humor and love. They aren’t waiting to be told what to do. ‘JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode… Unless you mean we ‘receive students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.'” DeVos didn’t even bother to try to build bridges.
Several things surprise me in Betsy DeVos’s first week on the job. I would have expected her to find a way to put some scaffolding underneath the promise she made last month to senators during her confirmation that she really does care about the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. And I’d have expected her not to fall back into Arne Duncan’s old complaint that his opponents were stuck in the status quo.
In her first week as education secretary, Betsy DeVos has given no indication that her grasp of school choice is any deeper than an ideological preference for individualism and the free market. I would have been at least a little reassured if DeVos had shown any sign of having thought about the issues that will complicate any efforts on her part to expand privatization through school choice. School choice must be evaluated by the way the expansion of “portable funding” affects all the children in a given geographic area, not merely by the test scores of the relatively few individual children who escape by winning a voucher or a place in a charter school. Here are just two research-based examples of easily available material DeVos could have studied, if she had been interested.
On November 30, just days after DeVos’s nomination as Trump’s candidate for education secretary, Bruce Baker, of Rutgers University, and the Economic Policy Institute published an extraordinary paper warning that school choice through rapidly expanding charter schools has created a mass of parasites killing their host public school districts. Baker believes it is dangerous that competition, not collaboration, has come to dominate the expansion of charter schools: “A very different reality of charter school governance… has emerged under state charter school laws—one that presents at least equal likelihood that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”
Baker continues: “(S)ome of the more dispersed multiple-authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid, unfettered, under-regulated growth.” “(N)umerous studies find that charter schools serve fewer students with costly special needs, leaving proportionately more of these children in district schools.” “(T)he assumption that revenue reductions and enrollment shifts cause districts no measurable harm… ignores the structure of operating costs and dynamics of cost and expenditure reduction.” Baker reminds readers that for several years now, Moody’s Investors Services has been warning about a range of concerns for host urban districts when charters are rapidly expanded. Finally, “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests).”
Here is a second research-based commentary. In a December 2012 brief for the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis summarizes some of the concerns that must be considered and balanced: “Various forms of school choice now exist across the United States: charter schools, conventional vouchers, neovouchers (another name for various tax credits and education savings accounts), magnet schools, open enrollment, and across-district choice… The threshold policy decision is whether public funds should be provided to choice schools…. Issues such as democratic governance, accountability of public funds, quality control and church/state concerns must first be carefully deliberated… While the threshold ‘yes/no’ issue is indisputably important, this brief focuses on the subsequent question: what criteria should policymakers consider in making decisions about the nuts and bolts of choice school funding?”
It is interesting to read Mathis’s little four-year-old brief, because politicians, ignoring many of the policy issues he describes, have created the mass of the problems we read about today in newspapers across the country—problems from unregulated charters and from voucher sinkholes swallowing state and school district budgets. Mathis cautions: “On the face, a ‘neutral’ policy would simply allot the same amount of money per student to a school of choice as it would to a conventional public school. But… the issue is far more complicated. For example, student populations may vary. Schools that serve autistic children will have different cost requirements than a school with a high population of economically deprived children. Further, while cyber-schools require technology-related resources, they require only minimal resources for facilities, maintenance expenses and transportation. Should these schools receive the same amount of money as a school that must pay these expenses?… Funding sources also vary. Some states have high levels of state support and others do not. Different states also pay charter schools, the most common form of choice, different percentage amounts of the state’s base support level… If the state stipend is low, then questions arise as to whether the difference should be paid by local districts, parents, or private sources.”
Mathis concludes: “While it is likely impossible and arguably unwise to eliminate these variations, clarity, fairness, equality and cogency require that policymakers make funding decisions applying principles of scientific analysis and problem solving.” Betsy DeVos gives no indication that she has considered any of these issues. Her strategy is ideological: just trust the education marketplace.
But there is some cautionary advice on trusting the education marketplace, this time from pro-market, pro-choice, pro-charter school economist Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution. When she spoke at the Cleveland City Club in December of 2014, here is what Raymond said: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”