Most of us define K-12 public schools as the civic institutions where, by law and through the democratic process, society can best protect the rights and serve the educational needs of 50 million of our children. Public schools are owned, governed, and funded by the public. They are also required to be accessible for all. Most of us believe society ought to strive to operate excellent public schools as a public responsibility.
But, according to a new profile by Washington Post reporter Moriah Balingit, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is intent on redefining public education. Balingit quotes DeVos: “The definition of public education should be to educate the public. That’s why we should fight less about the word that comes before ‘school.'” Here are the words DeVos believes we ought to ignore: public school, charter school, voucher school, religious school, private school.
Most of us understand the federal government’s role in K-12 education primarily as funding and administering two huge grant programs—Title I and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—along with protecting students through the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. You or I might hope Betsy DeVos is thinking about helping the nation’s most vulnerable public schools—those serving concentrations of our poorest children—by expanding the long-underfunded Title I formula, which sends federal money to schools in the poorest communities. We might hope that DeVos is considering increasing IDEA funding to pay for what Congress promised when it passed the IDEA in 1975: that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of programs federally mandated to serve disabled children. The federal reimbursement for the IDEA has never exceeded 19 percent; local school districts have been expected to pay for all the rest from their general operating budgets.
But Betsy DeVos doesn’t seem particularly worried about these matters. Balingit explains: “DeVos stands apart from her predecessors for many reasons: She has never worked in a public school and comes from immense wealth, crisscrossing the country in her personal aircraft.” “Since becoming the nation’s school chief earlier this year, DeVos has visited 37 K-12 schools—and about one-fourth have been private or religious, even though such schools educate just one-tenth of the nation’s schoolchildren.” “Even when DeVos has visited public schools, she has tended to bypass traditional neighborhood schools, instead making stops at charter schools and other schools of choice such as magnet schools.” “Arne Duncan, who held the job from 2009-2015, visited 34 K-12 public schools and one private early learning center during his first eight and a half months in office… DeVos views her role as getting out of the way so that innovative teaching practices can occur—not encouraging them through federal policy. She has said she hopes her visits will highlight education models that parents and educators will bring to their own communities—regardless of what happens in Washington.”
Balingit quotes DeVos’s spokesperson, Nathan Bailey, describing DeVos’s libertarian approach to her travels: “The department doesn’t ‘have a lot of say’ in most schools. Education policy, education funding is handled primarily at the state and local level… She’s going to learn about the kind of programs that are meeting the unique needs of individual children.”
Like the Washington Post, the NY Times has been examining Betsy DeVos’s travel and appointment calendar. For the NY Times, Eric Lipton tracks how Betsy DeVos has stayed connected to the organizations and networks she has supported for decades as a libertarian, far-right lobbyist and philanthropist: “For years, Betsy DeVos traveled the country—and opened her checkbook—as she worked as a conservative advocate to promote the expansion of voucher programs that allow parents to use taxpayer funds to send their children to private and religious schools. A detailed look at the first six months of Ms. DeVos’s tenure as the secretary of education—based on a 326-page calendar tracking her daily meetings—demonstrates that she continues to focus on those programs as well as on charter schools… The appointment books also include discussions related to traditional public schools…. But the emphasis, a review of the calendar shows, is on the same kinds of alternatives that Ms. DeVos promoted when she was a conservative philanthropist donating money to groups like the Alliance for School Choice and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which advocate for school choice.” The Foundation for Excellence in Education, which now calls itself ExcelinEd, is Jeb Bush’s organization to promote school privatization. Betsy DeVos served on its board.
DeVos’s July speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was much publicized. ALEC is the far-right organization that pairs 2000 state legislators with corporate lobbyists to churn out model bills suitable for introduction in any state legislature—for vouchers or tuition tax credits or right-to-work or stand-your-ground. Lipton describes many lesser known appointments from DeVos’s calendar. Lipton notes DeVos’s June speech to the National Charter School Conference, and, “Later that morning, she met with Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, multimillionaires from Missouri and major donors to the Show Me Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes school vouchers.” As a far-right think tank, the Show Me Institute is the Missouri member of the State Policy Network, a national network of such state-by-state, far-right lobbying groups that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
DeVos’s calendar, according to Lipton, records a meeting with Frank Luntz, the ultra-conservative who has helped create the linguistic framing for the far right. DeVos’s calendar notes describe what she expected to learn in her meeting with Luntz: “Frank has a 60 slide deck of the words to use and the words to lose regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay and all the other issues in education reform.”
Lipton notes a meeting with a Tennessee Republican state senator about “the federal government’s plans for school vouchers.” She also spoke with Phil Gram, the former Texas Senator, about school choice in Texas. DeVos met with attorneys from the Institute for Justice, which has defended state voucher programs threatened by lawsuits.
DeVos has met with officials from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Association of Christian Schools, and the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence. She is a proponent of using tax dollars for publicly funded vouchers for religious schools.
As Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is expected to lead the U.S. Department of Education, the agency responsible for administering the laws and programs that shape the nation’s public schools. At her confirmation hearing last winter, U.S. Senators were dismayed when DeVos demonstrated little understanding of the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the role of the department’s Office for Civil Rights. These recent explorations of DeVos’s calendar certainly confirm the Senators’ fears.