Betsy DeVos: A Dilettante with an Ideology but No Real Policy Plan

I was struck by Dana Milbank’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Trump is Looking More and More like a Man Without a Plan. Milbank enumerates what has happened around a lot of the President’s proposals—redoing the Affordable Care Act, defeating the Islamic State, banning travelers from particular countries and cultures, cutting the federal budget. Ideas get articulated but the details are lacking or won’t stand up in court. Or there is a lot of flexibility on what’s really acceptable as long as something gets done. “Such policy anticlimaxes are becoming routine in Trump world. Tough rhetoric, big promises—and no substance. Trump looks more and more like a man without a plan… How presumptuous to expect Trump, after campaigning on historic tax reform, actually to have a proposal! The emerging evidence that Trump doesn’t have a plan for much of anything isn’t entirely bad. No plan is better than a bad plan… Having actual policies may just not be part of this president’s plan.”

Certainly the same pattern seems to be emerging in the U.S. Department of Education, where the Secretary is a wealthy philanthropist and dilettante who seems to have two priorities.  First, privatization of the public schools has been her lifelong lobbying mission.  Second, as a lifelong Republican married to a businessman, DeVos favors deregulation. Her commitment to these causes is ideological, however;  there is no evidence of a detailed policy agenda built on particular programs and a specific timeline for implementation.

Valerie Strauss captures the situation in her recent column.  Betsy DeVos, explains Strauss, has visited four schools officially since she was confirmed in February: one in Washington, D.C., one in Bethesda, and two in Florida: “The Education Department did not respond to a query about why these schools were selected. But consider this: In central Florida… the Michigan billionaire and her husband, Dick DeVos, own at least one home at Windsor, a private sporting club community on what the development’s website says is a ‘lush barrier island between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean.’ …  Betsy DeVos has further ties to central Florida: Her father-in-law bought the Orlando Magic basketball team in 1991, and the family still owns it.” DeVos’s school visits may be a key to grasping her approach to her job: what’s convenient for her personally and what’s ideologically tied to her life as a lobbyist for school privatization, but not a policy plan for overseeing the civil rights of the nation’s 50 million children and adolescents in the public schools.

Neither does Betsy DeVos demonstrate that she has really paid attention to how to manage a department that, since 2002, has been charged by Congress with overseeing a huge federal apparatus for holding the nation’s schools accountable. Whether this test-and-punish accountability apparatus is good for our nation’s schools is another question, but if we wonder how Betsy DeVos thinks about this question, we may find the answer confusing. Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal policy reporter, covered a video interview in which Betsy DeVos responded to a question about whether the federal annual, high-stakes tests—required by Congress for all children in both the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor the Every Student Succeeds Act—are a good idea. These are the tests by which the Bush and Obama administration prescribed (with what I believe was an overly developed policy agenda) “turnaround” plans like closing or charterizing the lowest scoring schools or firing the principal and 50 percent of the teachers. These are the high-stakes standardized tests that are being administered by federal mandate this last week of March in many schools across the United States.

Klein quotes DeVos’s answer: “It’s really a matter for states and locales to determine how much testing is actually necessary for measuring what students are learning… I think it’s important to know and understand, however, what they are learning, and it’s important for parents to have that information, so that they can be assured that their students are in the right place… Testing is an important part of the equation, but I think it’s really a matter for the states to wrestle with, to decide how and how frequently the testing is actually done.” Notice that DeVos highlights the connection of testing to one of her favorite priorities—parental choice—parents’ need to be sure they have chosen the right place for their children.

Afterwards, according to Klein, a Department of Education spokesperson tried to explain that DeVos’s answer was perhaps grounded in the policy weeds of some experimental pilot programs introduced in the Every Student Succeeds Act. But it really seems that DeVos said she doesn’t think much of the annual standardized testing she is expected by federal law to oversee. Or maybe she doesn’t really understand the implications of the federal law she is expected to oversee.

I absolutely agree with what I think Betsy DeVos said about the stupidity of annual standardized testing. Test-and-punish has neither closed achievement gaps nor boosted learning according to any report I’ve seen in the research literature. As Ohio state senator Mike Shoemaker once explained in a farmer’s terms, “You can’t fatten up a hog by weighing him.” But I wonder whether the Secretary of Education understands what she said. If I thought she had a concrete policy plan to eliminate the federal test-and-punish accountability system for public schools and school teachers, I’d be elated. But I suspect that wasn’t really what she meant. What did she mean?

Why does DeVos’s lack of a concrete plan matter?  Well, the ideas that were listed in the President’s proposed education budget are indicative.  There are three examples there of Trump’s and presumably DeVos’s ideas for privatizing education, but as people have tried to parse them out, nobody has been able to explain how they could really ever be implemented. Here is one analysis that shows these ideas are incomplete and poorly conceived.

Then there is DeVos’s commitment to de-regulation.  Yesterday the President signed a law repealing some of the Obama administration’s implementation rules for school accountability in the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Also repealed is another rule that would have ranked and rated colleges of education, including a provision that would have rated the colleges’ departments of education  on the test scores K-12 students posted after the graduates of the colleges were hired by school districts and became their teachers. Many people are delighted to see these rules go because they seemed misguided. But DeVos and Trump’s commitment to deregulation seems ideological, not policy-oriented. The next set of regulations to be thrown out the window are likely to be those the Obama Department of Education established to try to hold the notorious for-profit colleges accountable (the subject of a future post).  Protecting students from these predatory colleges that drive up student debt, fail to prepare students in career-tech programs for existent jobs, and cost the federal government millions of dollars in defaulted loans is a legitimate policy goal that ought to be pursued.  Deregulation as an ideological commitment is not a real policy plan.

There are some other dangers of politicians who operate without a plan. Advisors and staff people who do have a plan and who know how government works can step in to fill the void and hope a president or a secretary of education doesn’t really care about the details of policy or does not notice. Or policy can just sink into the morass of government inertia. We just do things just the way we’ve always done it for as long as anybody remembers.

Fortunately somebody is paying attention to what ought to be considered as the administration and Congress frame federal policy in public education.  Senator Patty Murray is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.  In a 20 page memo to her Senate colleagues, Murry critiques Betsy DeVos’s ideological commitment to privatization of public schools.  Murray explains: “The Trump Administration and some in Congress are pursuing an education agenda under the guise of providing students and families with so-called ‘school choice.’  Though, on its face, this promise may sound appealing, in reality, this so-called answer doesn’t work for students and families for a number of critical reasons. It ignores the needs of students in rural areas without private school options, ignores the threats posed to students with disabilities and students who may face discrimination, and ignores the parents who believe in their communities and want their children to be able to attend strong public schools in their neighborhoods… Privatization occurs when states, districts, or the federal government divert public funds to private education.”

Murray explains the problems that arise when schools are privatized.  Private schools, governed by private boards, do not have to be transparent.  In many places private schools are not required “to be accredited or employ teachers with the credentials necessary to teach in public schools, such as a Bachelor’s degree.”  Murray cites examples of fraud that have arisen as schools are privatized and less accountable, “including misusing public dollars for administrators’ own benefit.”  “Due to a history of discrimination and harassment of children in schools based on race, sex, national origin, religion, disability, immigration status, gender identity, and sexual orientation,” she writes, “Congress developed a system of civil rights laws to ensure every child in the United States has equitable access to education. However, Congressional proposals to create federal voucher programs disregard this history of discrimination and fail to reaffirm that any private schools receiving taxpayer dollars must be subject to certain civil rights laws, including the IDEA.”

She continues: “Privatization efforts provide a false sense of choice for many students and families. A more effective vision of school choice includes supporting strong, high-quality public schools that truly benefit all students and communities.  While many of them are far from perfect, and the work to improve them should never end, public schools have a historic role in bringing communities together and providing opportunities for all students to have a place to learn and grow… Every child in this country deserves a choice to attend an excellent public school. But in order for this to happen, defenders of privatization programs need to let go of their misguided ideas that… siphon away critical taxpayer resources… Instead, parents deserve real public school choices when it comes to their children’s education, including the choice to attend a high-quality neighborhood public school.”

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