Betsy DeVos Defends School Choice, Waffles on Protecting Children’s Civil Rights

Let’s begin with some irony as we consider Betsy DeVos’s comments last week on the speaking circuit. DeVos made what was billed as a major policy address to the convention of the ultra-conservative American Federation for Children, which she founded and whose board she chaired until she became our Education Secretary.  She was, according to Jeff Bryant’s excellent column on the subject, introduced by Denisha Merriweather, among DeVos’s favorite exemplars of school choice. Bryant reminds us: “In Merriweather’s case, exercising school choice meant using Florida’s education tax credit program to attend a fundamentalist Christian academy that presents the Bible as literal history and science, (and) teaches young earth creationism….”

So what did Betsy DeVos say after Merriweather introduced her?  Knowing that Merriweather used her voucher at a private school endorsing young earth creationism, DeVos accused the millions of Americans who support traditional public schools of being “flat-earthers” who need to be dragged by the expansion of school choice “out of the Stone Age and into the future.”

In DeVos’s address to the American Federation for Children, it had been predicted that she would spell out her particular voucher plan which would very likely be modeled on a tuition tax credit program in Florida. But no plan was announced. From DeVos’s omission of any details we can infer that we are probably not going to get a major voucher plan this year because DeVos’s department isn’t ready and because the health care debate has fallen apart and because widespread dysfunction has slowed things down. That is all to the good.

President Trump’s federal budget proposal was also released last week, and DeVos went before a House subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education to defend the proposed budget for the Department of Education, which cuts $10.6 billion (13 percent) out of current programming and expands school choice by $1.4 billion. DeVos tried to claim that her department is not stealing money from public school programming to expand school choice, but Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post responds: “If there are cuts to public schools, and there is new money going to school choice, that can’t mean anything else.”

Strauss also reports that, although DeVos admitted that she thinks high poverty schools need more money than low poverty schools and therefore supports the purpose of Title I, DeVos seemed confused.  She appeared to say that high-poverty schools already get more money than low-poverty schools, something that is demonstrably false. After all, Title I was created for the purpose of compensating for grossly unequal school funding between poor and wealthy communities. In almost every case, state school funding fails to make up for the enormous inequity created by the disparate property taxing capacities of local communities.  Title I has always been inadequately funded, and it has never been able to make up the difference.

Much of DeVos’s conversation with the House committee considering the proposed education budget was about the federal Education Department’s responsibility to protect the civil rights of students in schools that receive federal dollars. As she did in her confirmation hearing last January, DeVos again waffled.

Valerie Strauss examines DeVos’s conversation with members of the House committee in some detail.  Strauss shares an interchange between Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and DeVos in which DeVos says the federal government should step back and give more latitude to the states as they design school voucher programs that would receive federal funding: “Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass) said that one private school in Indiana that is a voucher school says it may deny admission to students who are LGBT or who come from a family where there is ‘homosexual or bisexual activity.’  She asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana that it could not discriminate in that way if it were to accept federal funding through a new school choice program. Clark further asked what DeVos would say if a voucher school were not accepting African American students and the state ‘said it was okay.'”

Strauss reports that, while DeVos said that Title IX protections are broadly applicable, she hedged, “when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students…”

Clark interrupted: “This isn’t about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana, ‘that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars?’  Or would you say the state has the flexibility?”

DeVos replied: “I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs.”

Later, DeVos is quoted elaborating on her belief that the federal government should step back and empower state governments even when federal dollars are involved: “I go back to the bottom line—is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down , one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus.  And states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions.”

Strauss reports that when asked about the U.S. Department of Education’s role in protecting students’ rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, DeVos again backed off: “DeVos responded that it should be up to the states to decide how to run their own programs, and then she referred to a tax credit program in Florida, where tens of thousands of students with disabilities attend private school with public money. Florida is one of those states that requires voucher recipients to give up their IDEA rights. ‘Each state deals with this issue in their own manner,’ she said.”

Finally DeVos would not commit to holding private and parochial schools receiving federal dollars through vouchers or the federal Charter Schools Program accountable to the same standards as traditional public schools. When she was asked whether she would support accountability standards for any new federally funded school choice program, DeVos responded: “States should decide ‘what kind of flexibility they are going to allow.'”

At the end of her column, Strauss publishes DeVos’s formal testimony to the House Committee. Here is how DeVos concluded her prepared remarks to the committee: “In total, the President’s budget fulfills his promise to devolve power from the Federal government and place it in the hands of parents and families. It refocuses the Department on supporting States in their efforts to provide a high quality education to all of our students.”

By promoting a state-by-state policy agenda, DeVos is following the playbook examined in detail by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017). Lafer tracks the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills.” (p. 13) Betsy DeVos is quite familiar with the agenda of ALEC and its partners such as Michigan’s Mackinac Center. Her husband, Dick DeVos is described as instrumentally  involved in twisting the arms of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and members of the Michigan legislature in 2011 to pass ALEC’s high-priority right-to-work legislation. (p. 82)

Here is Gordon Lafer describing the corporate education agenda being driven across the states by ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce and the regional think tanks that are part of the State Policy Network. While Betsy DeVos is careful to frame her agenda in the softer language of parental choice, Lafer would suggest we consider the corporate agenda as the foundation underneath her proposals: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers that may be used for private school tuition, lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards… Despite prolific claims to the contrary, corporate-led education reform does not represent an agenda to improve American education or expand the life chances of poor urban youth… (T)he corporate agenda would lead to a divided country, where the children of the wealthy will be taught a broad curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers, while the rest of the nation will be consigned to a narrow curriculum delivered in large classes by inexperienced staff—or by digital applications with no teachers at all.” (p. 130)

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