At Brookings, DeVos Restates Her One Belief: School Choice Will Take Care of Everything

On Wednesday, Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education, went to the Brookings Institution to make a big speech on school choice. This was guaranteed to be an audience sympathetic to her ideas, as the event was the announcement of Brookings’ fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index.

Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describing the event: “DeVos gave keynote remarks at Brookings, where the think tank unveiled its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, its ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts.  For the 2016 index, the district with the highest score was Denver, followed by the Recovery School District in New Orleans, New York City, Newark and Boston.  D.C. Schools was ninth on the list, which is compiled with a number of measures, including the availability and mix of choice options for parents.”

In her speech at Brookings, Betsy DeVos once again describes herself as “passionate about… increasing education options for parents and students. It’s something I view as a fundamental right too long denied to too many kids… First, parents know what is best for their kids… Secondly, good teachers know what’s best for the students in their classrooms… And thirdly, state and local leaders are best equipped to address the unique challenges and opportunities they face, not the federal government.” DeVos affirms her belief in the primary right of the family and her support for state’s rights and local control.

One bright spot here:  On Wednesday, DeVos declared that she trusts school teachers.  That is actually sort of radical these days.

But the focus is on choice: “I am in favor of increased choice, but I’m not in favor of any one form of choice over another. I’m simply in favor of giving parents more and better options to find an environment that will set their child up for success… Let me say it again: we must change the way we think about funding education and instead invest in children, not in buildings.”  Of course there are some complications here, because DeVos conflates the idea of a building with the educational institution that is situated in any particular building. One wonders how one might set up these institutions if the funding arrives via the little backpack of funding each child brings, after having selected a particular “building.”  How would those in charge of “a building” know how many children might arrive and how might administrators plan for and hire the appropriate teachers in advance?  How could administrators ensure the presence of teachers skilled in working with students who have disabilities or who need to learn English, for example? What about children’s need for school stability, which comes from a principal’s building and nurturing a professional staff over time?

DeVos speaks about the “delivery mechanism” for school choice and says she is open to any of them: “(T)here is no one delivery mechanism of education choice: Open enrollment, tax credits, home schools, magnets, charters, virtual schools, education savings accounts and choices not yet developed all have their place, but no single one of these is always the right delivery method for each child.” DeVos continues, chiding her critics: “Policymakers at every level of government would do well to maintain a humble acknowledgement of these facts.  Let’s put aside the politics of the adults and actually focus on what will best serve kids.”

DeVos lists some things that she believes are needed to make “choice” work. Parents need information about their choices that is “accessible, transparent and accountable.” And parents need “a full menu of options.”

Choice in education, says DeVos, ought to be like choice in transportation and accommodations: “The truth is that in practice people like having more options.  They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others.  Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb.  We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging… Why do we not allow parents to exercise the same right to choice in the education of their child?”

The session where DeVos presented her speech was sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families and was moderated by Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of Brookings.  In a followup discussion with Whitehurst, DeVos is described as emphasizing her well-known belief that traditional public schools are “a dead end.”  Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week reports that on Wednesday DeVos declared “she wasn’t sure they (public schools) could be much worse.”  She said the failure of public education is demonstrated by low scores on the international PISA test and stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Ujifusa tries to put long-term score trends on both tests in historical perspective.  He explains: “It’s important to note that DeVos spoke very generally about the exams, and that breaking out the results by subject and grade level are important to getting a fuller picture of performance on these tests.”  Neither DeVos nor any of the commentaries I’ve seen has explored the enormous disparities in test scores among the schools in wealthy communities and poor communities.  David Berliner recently pointed out that students in America’s wealthy suburban public schools that serve homogeneously privileged student populations are known to score as high as any students in the world on standardized tests.

Notice that DeVos thinks in generalities.  Schools are broken, “a dead end,” as she has said.  And notice that she doesn’t really think about what may challenge a principal, for example, or a teacher in the particular school settings one might find across the fifty states—rural isolation—a homeless child—a child who arrives from another country and doesn’t speak English—a deaf or autistic child—a classroom with many very poor children—a school where almost all of the children don’t speak English and have arrived from many countries and speak two dozen primary languages and are learning English. She doesn’t seem to worry about what may be the pedagogical and psychological impact of federally mandated high stakes testing on the children and on how their teachers teach and how the teachers feel about their work.

Questions about education begin with the key pronouns: who? what? when? where? why? and how?  But for Betsy DeVos, the answer to all of these questions is “letting parents choose the school for their child.” She focuses on the “what.” Ironically that always involves a choice among an ever-growing number of private or privatized schools.  DeVos has never endorsed the right to a quality, accessible public school that serves every child who arrives at the door, protects that child’s rights, and creates a program to serve that child’s needs.

DeVos also cares about the “who.”  She defines the civil rights issue of our times not as child’s right to quality education but instead as the parent’s right to choose. Notice that DeVos privileges the institution of the family over the institution of the school and certainly over the institution of government. It is a belief system that privileges the individual over the community and that situates all control over children as the right of the family.  DeVos’s famous comment at a 2015 ed tech conference, “Government really sucks!”  was not so much a critique of the workings of government as it was a reflection of her belief system that elevates the rights of family over the protection of civil rights by the public.

DeVos always forgets to address the “how” questions—how public schools ought to work—how federal education policy ought to work —how teachers should be working with children—how we can really pay for all this in an unequal society where the wealthy who can afford it have sequestered themselves in elite local enclaves and been granted state and federal tax cuts.

There is another “how” question that didn’t come up at Brookings. How can our society do a better job of serving each child’s needs and how can the federal government protect 50 million children’s right to a quality education? If Betsy DeVos were to address that question honestly, public schools would have to be a primary part of the answer just because of the scale of the endeavor.  Vouchers and charter schools—the privatized alternatives she endorses—have never been imagined as more than a lifeboat for a tiny percentage of our nation’s children.

Maria Danilova of the Associated Press reports that at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, Grover Whitehurst repeated a point that he had made in the report Brookings released to announce this year’s  Brookings Education Choice and Competition Index: “There is no question that alternatives to the traditional school district model are destructive of the traditional school district model… Whether they are harmful, neutral or helpful to students, families, and the nation is, in the end, an empirical question.”

Danilova also quotes DeVos’ response: “I would argue that these alternatives are constructive, not destructive for students, parents and teachers.”  It seems that DeVos cannot even be trapped into wondering about the potential strengths of traditional public schools.

9 thoughts on “At Brookings, DeVos Restates Her One Belief: School Choice Will Take Care of Everything

  1. I would be a whole lot more impressed with charter schools, and public-voucher funded private schools, if those schools took all kids. The special needs kids, the ELL kids, the children with behavior problems, or who come to school hungry, or worried because their family was homeless, or because their parents were about to lose their house or their farm. And if these schools would actually expend the resources and hire the specialized teachers and other support staff that these children needed to succeed, and follow the federal laws about the education of such children.
    Oh, and also, if these schools were totally transparent about their money and their methods and answerable to the taxpayers who are funding them.
    Absent all of that, then, no, I don’t support these types of schools.
    Children are not widgets, or pizzas, or any other kind of product “for sale.”
    Children, all children, are our future, and if we as a country have forgotten one of our original purposes to “promote the general welfare,” then I despair for our country.

  2. Public schools already take all kids. When school choice comes in, the public schools will continue to take the special needs kids, the ELL, etc. just like they are doing now. Public school supporters should quit their “bitching”, and just learn to live with reality.

    • Chuck, as I have said to you before, when the public schools are left with less and less money to educate these children, these kids will have fewer resources to get the help they need because that money is going to charters and vouchers.
      Are you really as much of an unfeeling jerk as you present yourself? What are your plans for these kids in public schools who need more help than will be available to them?
      Your reality is a terribly, terribly mean and unfeeling one. What are your plans for those kids? Let them live in institutions, throw them in jail, or just let them wither away and die?
      Examine your heart, Chuck. If you even have one.

      • School Choice/vouchers will take money away from public schools. No doubt. But school choice will also take students away from public schools. Just like when a student moves across town, or to another state. The per-pupil money allocated to educate the children remaining in the public schools, will be unchanged (It might even increase). No one objects when a family relocates, and the school that the child was going to, loses its per-pupil allocation of funds.

        Name-calling does no good. I have feelings like anyone else. But the marketplace is a cruel master. Buggy-whip makers and blacksmiths, and livery stable operators all disappeared when the automobile came in. This is called “creative destruction”. Public schools, which cannot face the discipline and harshness of the marketplace will disappear.

        I have no plans for the special-needs children which will remain in public schools, after some (not all) parents exercise school choice. There is the possibility that “boutique” schools will appear, and offer the assistance that special needs children require. There is already a school like this in Fairfax VA (religiously operated).


        Once parents of special-needs children, can obtain a voucher equivalent to what the state was spending previously, the parents can transfer the child to a school more suited to their needs.

      • Chuck, there are not enough private schools for the special needs kids to take them all in, and many of those that exist cost way more than vouchers will pay for.
        A “school like this” in Fairfax (or wherever) is not enough. What is its tuition?
        Schools are not “marketplaces,” nor should they be. Do you want our police forces and fire fighters to be “market places,” too? There is such as thing as the common good and everyone contributing to that. Do you want to have to pay extra for a private police force to show up when you have been robbed or assaulted? Do you want to have to personally pay for fire protection to put out a fire in your house? We all pay taxes for this kind of protection, available to everyone.
        And speaking of “name-calling,” I will add more to that and call you a heartless b@stard, Chuckie.
        I hope that you are never in a position that you or any of your loved ones get very ill or disabled and wind up needing a lot of care in a hospital or nursing home where a lot of the staff has not received the best education or training because of your beliefs. You might well live to regret your beliefs then.
        And BTW, I am a pacifist, and I do not believe in the extent of militarization in this country, and the amount of my tax money that goes to it. Yet I pay taxes towards this, and nobody is suggesting that we should all have a choice as to which parts of the military, or privatized military, our money goes to.

  3. Q Charles, or “Chuck” or “Chuckie” as I have called him, has a very narrow, selfish, and unethical view of schooling.
    He’s a selfish jerk, and unfortunately, we are not going to change his little mind. END Q

    I dispute that. I have a very broad, and generous view of education. I believe that there should be a “mix” of public/private/parochial education at the K-12 level, just there is at the university level.

    I voted in favor of the last school bond proposal here in Fairfax, because I support the public school system here. Fairfax flattered me, when they accepted me to be a substitute teacher in the schools here.

    The costs I pay to educate other people’s children, are a bargain. I would much rather live in an educated society, than an ignorant one. (I lived in Mozambique, which had a basic literacy rate of 12%). I received a free tax-supported education at Kentucky public schools, I attended a publicly-supported university. I received BEOG’s and GI Bill support. I believe in payback.

    I must live in the society, that will be populated by the graduates of our educational system. The government taxes me prodigiously, to meet this end.

    Our public educational system is public. This means that all citizens have an input, whether they have children enrolled or not. Citizens need not have classroom experience, to influence educational policy!

    I have every right to make my wishes known, as if I had a dozen “crib-lizards”.

  4. No one is suggesting that there are enough private/parochial school slots open now, if the entire nation suddenly and miraculously had school choice. That is like saying that there were not enough auto mechanics and superhighways in 1903, when automobiles first became available and horse transportation started to disappear.

    Right now, only a very tiny percentage of parents receive any voucher assistance in the USA. As the number grows (and it definitely will), the number of private/parochial slots, that are within the price range of the vouchers, will grow concurrently.

    If the costs of private/parochial schools tuition exceeds the amount of the voucher, then the private/parochial school will lose students to the public school, which is what public school supports want anyway.

    Saying that voucher recipients cannot redeem their voucher at Phillips Exeter or Choate, is like saying that food-stamp recipients cannot redeem their vouchers for prime rib and caviar. Voucher recipients can redeem their vouchers at the schools that are in their price range.

    If you want to find out a school’s tuition, then hit their website, or call them.

    I never called a school a market place. I want my state/municipality to provide the services I pay for in my taxes.

    If I lived in a gated community, and the community had a private security force, I would pay for this. I live in a community that has a homeowner’s association now. We have no private security force.

    Feel free to call me any name you wish. As to my personal relationships with my family, that is none of your business. My mother had to spend time in a retirement community/nursing home.

    You have every right to object to the amount that this nation spends on defense. I get a little riled, when I see the amount of waste, fraud, and abuse in the defense department, too.

  5. I have no children. This is a fact. I am not a professional educator. This is a fact.

    Nevertheless, I have every right to influence public education policy, as if I had a dozen “crib-lizards”. I pay the same school taxes, as anyone else. I do not have the state educating my children, true.

    As long as the government takes my taxes, the government will hear my complaints and comments. People with children do not get extra votes for school board. In the political process, everyone is equal.

    I am not content to leave education policy to the educators, bureaucrats, and politicians, and the teacher’s unions. This is unacceptable.

    In our constitutional republic, the people are sovereign. “WE THE PEOPLE” run this government. We run the public schools. We pay for the public education system. All people parents or not, are the “boss”.

    I strongly support school choice and vouchers. I also support Educational Savings accounts, and opportunity scholarships. I support the right of parents to withdraw their children from the government-run public schools, and enroll them in private/parochial schools, or home-school them.

    It “twists my gritts” to hear professional educators, telling the citizens to stay out of education policy. I do not like the teacher’s unions putting their interests ahead of the children and our society. These people should be reminded of who is paying the bills around the school house.

  6. Reblogged this on Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning" and commented:
    At Brookings, DeVos Restates Her One Belief: School Choice Will Take Care of Everything
    by janresseger
    On Wednesday, Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education, went to the Brookings Institution to make a big speech on school choice. This was guaranteed to be an audience sympathetic to her ideas, as the event was the announcement of Brookings’ fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index.

    Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describing the event:

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