Broken Record Betsy

I don’t usually agree with Andrew Rotherham, a former domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton, the founder of and a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, and now a commentator for Campbell Brown’s project, The 74, an online news service with a pro-“reform” edge.  Rotherham is a committed education “reformer,” a pro-innovation, pro-charter-school technocrat. But this week I laughed in agreement when, commenting on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Rotherham surmised that maybe “even asking her about the weather gets you an answer about school vouchers.”

DeVos and her husband and both of their parents control a network of family foundations that have made major contributions to pro-privatization lobbies and think tanks: the Council for National Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Institute for Justice, the Mackinac Center, and the Great Lakes Education Project.  For decades Betsy DeVos has been a proponent of school vouchers to support religious education and homeschooling. When a hapless DeVos faced the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her confirmation hearing last January, she didn’t do much to hide her disdain for public education.

But I imagined that just perhaps, after DeVos took over the U.S. Department of Education, she would come to appreciate its primary programs—funding Title I to support schools serving concentrations of very poor children—providing resources to pay at least part of the expense of federally mandated programs for disabled children through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  And I imagined that just maybe, after she learned more about the essential role of the Office for Civil Rights to protect children experiencing discrimination and bullying, she might come to appreciate the role of the Department of Education that she is charged with overseeing.  Naively, I dreamed that after DeVos made some visits to public schools, she might come to appreciate the dedicated work of the professionals serving children. For example, she visited a public school in Van Wert, Ohio, my state. When I read about the robotics program she saw in this small town’s high school, I was impressed. But I guess none of this has cracked the armor of Betsy’s preconceived beliefs.

On Tuesday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss called her column, This Is the New Betsy DeVos Speech Everyone Should Read. You may remember that DeVos went to an ed tech conference two years ago and decried public schools as “a dead end.”  Well, she went to another ed tech conference last week in Salt Lake City and said the same thing… and she harped on the failure of public schools over and over again. I agree with Strauss: you ought to read the speech, which Strauss reprints.

DeVos has one idea: parents should have the right to school choice. What can we do to improve education?  For DeVos, “This starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.  When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system where we can predict educational outcomes based strictly on ZIP code. The system we create would respect parents’ fundamental right to choose what education is best-suited for each of their children. Every individual student is unique, with different abilities and needs. Our education delivery methods should then be as diverse as the kids they serve, instead of our habit of forcing them into a one-size-fits-all model.”

Of course a system of mass education cannot be utopian; no public school and no mass system will perfectly meet the needs of each and every child.  But we expect our political leaders in a democracy to help define strategies for improving the public system they are charged with overseeing and for expanding the opportunity to learn for children who have historically been left out or left behind.  In this speech DeVos doesn’t connect her sole idea to any kind of practical plan. If parents can get a voucher, they will make the right choice, she believes.

DeVos bolsters her argument with a sort of rhetorical trashing of public education: “I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.”

Unpacking all the rhetoric in that one sentence would take more space than this blog permits.  Let me just point out that I have always believed the so-called “inputs” in public education are more important than the test-score mavens—who look only at the output measured by the score—acknowledge. Inputs in this case are the teachers and the curriculum and the daily schedule and the enrichments like art and music that are present in some schools and lacking in others. The inputs also include tax-based school funding that happens to be grossly unequal depending on how states distribute it. Usually poor students and black and brown students get a whole lot less of these inputs, and their problems are compounded by family poverty.  DeVos just dismisses these realities and instead returns to her sole idea: Parents will solve it all if they have the right to choose a school.

DeVos begins the speech this way: “Since I do have this opportunity to speak with you, I want to begin by saying it’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education. Why now? Because Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.”

Here is how Valerie Strauss herself responds: “What exactly does this mean?… Is that a reference to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most important federal education legislation ever passed by Congress that was aimed at funding primary and secondary education to help close achievement gaps? Is it a reference to federal involvement over decades in attempting to desegregate public schools and protect the civil rights of students? Is it a reference to major federal legislation aimed at protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities?  Is she suggesting that the federal government should simply stand down and stop trying to protect the civil rights and the educational opportunities of students and leave it to the states, whose inaction or misaction led to federal involvement in the first place?”

I urge you to read the speech and then read it again. Force yourself to unpack the language while at the same time considering that DeVos is describing a system of about 90,000 public schools across the United States that serve 50 million children every day.   Betsy DeVos compares this to cell phone service: “Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cellphone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work.”

DeVos doesn’t have a particularly practical mind.  She doesn’t concern herself with the little things like what her so-called solution would cost. It doesn’t seem to enter her mind that state education budgets in many places remain lower than before the great recession or that her favorite programs like vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts will take a lot of money out of public schools with fixed costs. It doesn’t seem to worry her that rapid expansion of school choice has driven the closure of public schools that anchored neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Chicago where school privatization has further destabilized vulnerable communities. Basic public policy concerns that worry planners and economists—rudimentary ideas about the opportunity cost and the negative externalities—don’t occur to Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is merely a billionaire heiress promoting her personal biases about education.  She has not learned to understand the system she has been hired to lead even though she’s been on the job for a while now.

Public schools are not utopian; they will always need improvement. It remains true, however, that a public system of education is our best hope for meeting the needs and, through democratic governance and oversight, protecting the rights of our nation’s children.

School Privatization in the Age of Betsy DeVos: Where Are We in Mid-May?

In a new analysis at Jacobin Magazine, Jennifer Berkshire reports that Betsy DeVos addressed a convention of tech investors and edupreneurs by pushing vouchers as the best form of creative disruption: “Apple, Uber, and Airbnb have worked their disruptive magic on one industry after another. Why aren’t our public schools being similarly disrupted?… But if the nation’s schools are the equivalent of a kitchen-wall rotary phone or the cab that never comes, DeVos was eager to let the audience know that a quick fix is at hand: school choice. The way to disrupt our educational malaise once and for all is to shift the way we think about education to focus ‘on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.’  Even the best schools won’t be the right ‘fit’ for all kids, DeVos noted. ‘The simple fact is that if a school is not meeting a child’s unique needs, then that school is failing that child.'”

DeVos’s attempt at sleek packaging of her long and old-fashioned support for the vouchers that have kept religious schools afloat and her endorsements of parents’ right to homeschool their children amuses me. DeVos’s one big idea—giving parents a choice—is definitely conservative, but it’s hard to call vouchers particularly creative or disruptive.  They have been around for quite a while now.

Here in Ohio, where I live, we’ve had private school vouchers for two decades. Tax dollars certainly flow out of the budgets of the state as well as the budgets of the local public school districts to religious schools. In fact, 97 percent of all Ohio voucher dollars pay tuition at religious schools, with much of the money supporting children who began using a voucher in Kindergarten and have kept on attending parochial school—students who whose parents always intended to send them to a religious school and are delighted that tax dollars are helping them pay the tuition. In Ohio, vouchers have been debilitating for public school districts but not particularly disruptive.

Here is a summary of existing school privatization programs, as compiled by the website The 74: “Fourteen states and the District of Columbia provide vouchers that give private schools state funding to pay tuition for students….Seventeen states, including Indiana and Florida, have tax credit scholarship programs….Eight states give tax credits or deductions to parents who send their kids to private schools…. Indiana and Louisiana allow families to deduct tuition on their taxes, while Illinois and Iowa let parents claim a tax credit for their children’s private school tuition…. In five states, including Arizona and Mississippi, education savings accounts let parents choose how to spend the state’s per-pupil allotment for their child’s education — whether it’s putting them in private school or paying for tutoring.” Last year Nevada established an education savings account program which would have allowed all 450,000 of Nevada’s students to carry their public school funding to a private school or use it for home schooling. The bill’s funding mechanism was found unconstitutional, but supporters are looking for a way to resurrect the program.

But this year with DeVos as their cheerleader, far right legislators across the states have been aggressively promoting school privatization with bills for new vouchers, tax credits or education savings accounts or bills to expand existing privatization schemes.  As usual, legislators are being assisted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate and think tank lobbyists to write model bills that can be adapted to any state and introduced across the statehouses by ALEC members.

The Network for Public Education has made available short explanations of all three school privatization schemes: vouchers, tutition tax credits here and here, and education savings accounts.

So what has 2017 brought us so far in passage of bills to expand privatization?

Washington D.C. Vouchers were reauthorized (through 2019) by Congress  at the end of April as part of the 2017 budget agreement. Reauthorization of D.C. Vouchers has been one of the priorities of President Trump and Betsy DeVos.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown describing the program: “The D.C. program serves about 1,100 students, giving them up to $8,452 to attend a private elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school. Participating private schools must be accredited by 2021 but otherwise face few requirements beyond showing that they are in good financial standing and demonstrating compliance with health and safety laws.”  Congress folded the D.C. voucher extension into the 2017 budget agreement despite a negative evaluation of the program just released by a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education itself. Emma Brown summarizes the evaluation: “D.C. students who used vouchers had significantly lower math scores a year after joining the program, on average, than students who applied for a voucher through a citywide lottery but did not receive one.  For voucher students in kindergarten through fifth grade, reading scores were also significantly lower… For voucher recipients coming from a low-performing public school—the population that the voucher program primarily aims to reach—attending a private school had no effect on achievement.  But for voucher recipients coming from higher-performing public schools, the negative effect was particularly large.”

Arizona exploded the number of students eligible for what had been a small Education Savings Accounts program. Governor Doug Ducey signed the education savings account program expansion into law early in April. Now every single child in the state will be eligible, though at this time there are enrollment caps—to be expanded gradually over time— on how many students the state will underwrite each year. ESAs are basically an experiment in totally portable school funding.  David Sciarra of the Education Law Center summarizes the meaning of Arizona’s new law: “Cheered on by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed legislation expanding vouchers again, this time making all 1.1 million public school students eligible.  To pass the bill, proponents accepted a cap of 5,500 new students per year and 30,000 students over the next five years. The cost to taxpayers and the public schools could quickly swell to over $100 million or more.  But make no mistake: Voucher proponents are already aiming to lift the caps and throw the program open to everyone…. (M)ost Arizona voucher recipients are from affluent neighborhoods…. And public school funding in Arizona… is among the lowest and most inadequate in the country.”

Currently legislatures across the country are considering bills for vouchers or tuition tax credits or education savings accounts, Most of the spring legislative sessions have not yet concluded.  Neither have state budget bills—into which all sorts of programs can be quietly slipped—been passed.  We’ll take another look at the end of June as the budget deadline passes and legislators go home for summer recess.  As of Mid-May, however, the news is not all bad: a number of states have rejected bids to expand school privatization.

It is worth noting some principles at the end of this summary. Schemes like vouchers and tax credits and education savings accounts privilege the individual wishes of the family over the state’s protection the rights of all. It is again worth considering the wisdom of the late Benjamin Barber:

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes.” (Consumed, p. 143)  “The consumer’s republic is quite simply an oxymoron. Consumers cannot be sovereign, only citizens can.  Public liberty demands public institutions that permit citizens to address the public consequences of private market choices… Asking what “I want’ and asking what ‘we as a community to which I belong need’ are two very different questions, though neither is altruistic and both involve ‘my’ interests: the first is ideally answered by the market; the second must be answered by democratic politics. When the market is encouraged to do the work of democracy, our culture is perverted and the character of our commonwealth undermined. Moreover, my sense of self—me as a moral being embedded in a free community—is lost.” (Consumed, p. 126)

Roosevelt University Study: Rapid Charter Growth Has Cannibalized Chicago Public Schools

A new poll by the Associated Press exposes widespread support for school choice even though most people don’t know much about what it is:

“(M)ost Americans know little about charter schools or private school voucher programs.  Still, more Americans feel positively than negatively about expanding these programs, according to a new poll released Friday… All told, 58 percent of respondents say they know little or nothing at all about charter schools and 66 percent report the same about private school voucher programs… Even though they are unfamiliar to many, Americans have largely positive reactions to charter schools and vouchers.”

The finding that most people have some sort of positive affinity with the idea of school choice doesn’t really surprise me. After all, our new U.S. Secretary of Education advertises the importance of “parents’ right to choose” every time she opens her mouth.  I believe Betsy DeVos’s support for what she calls “the right” of parents to choose a school is ideological.  She has been affiliated for years with libertarian think tanks that privilege individualism over the public good. I think she also believes in the importance of Christian religious schools or the right of parents to insulate their children by homeschooling them. And I don’t think DeVos has an adequately developed sense of opportunity cost—the reality in this case that school budgets are fixed and if you cut more pieces in the budget pie, all the servings get smaller and smaller.

By talking relentlessly about “parents’ right to choose a school,” DeVos is on-message all the time, driving home the idea that school choice is a right, and that right is currently being denied to poor parents. Hence DeVos talks about the need for more charter schools or publicly funded school vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts—public money to pay for parents’ private choice.

Let’s stop for a moment to remember that parental choice in a privatized education marketplace is not what is protected by the education clauses in the 50 state constitutions, which instead include language about the state’s responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools to serve the children of the state and the well-being of the public. The state constitutions allocate tax dollars for what has long been understood as a public purpose.

A new study from Roosevelt University in Chicago explains precisely how school choice—in this case Chicago’s rapid expansion of charter schools—can destroy the public good. The authors summarize the history of school accountability in conjunction with the explosive growth of charter schools in Chicago: “During the Mayor Richard M. Daley Administration of the 1990s, Chicago Public Schools was shaped by educational accountability practices… Once identified as ‘underperforming’ a school would be subject to a litany of school actions including probation, reconstitution… or closure… By 2001, Chicago augmented its accountability practices with a school choice philosophy… In order to give parents school choice, the public schools system was directed to introduce a greater menu of school choices….”

And the school district closed so-called “failing” schools: “As became apparent, nearly 90% of the school closures for low academic performance impacted predominantly low-income and working class African-American communities… (in) the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods.  These schools… predominantly served a vulnerable student population who ‘were more likely to receive a free or reduced price lunch, special education services, be too old for their grade, and families change residences in prior year.’  Furthermore, children from closed schools did not go on to attend higher-performing schools. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research 2009 study of Ren10 (Renaissance 2010 was a school closure and charter expansion plan.) schools found that 82% of students from 18 closed elementary schools in their study moved from one underperforming school to another underperforming school including schools already on academic probation.”

Then came Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mass closure of public schools in 2011: “In addition to poor academic performance, schools with low enrollment would also be closed in order ‘right size’ the district… Using the Chicago Board of Education ‘under-utilization’ metric, Mayor Emanuel shuttered 49 so-called underutilized schools, almost 10% of CPS’s entire school stock. Mayor Emanuel justified the massive closures as a strategy to contend with CPS’ billion-dollar deficit….”

By then, unbeknownst to many, Chicago was participating in Portfolio School Reform—the idea that a school district be managed like a stock portfolio by shedding failed investments and adding new investments—through what is called a District-Charter Collaboration Compact supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Through this relationship, CPS agreed to open another 60 charter schools in the next five years, even as CPS enrollments were shrinking and existing charter schools could not fill 11,000 vacant seats in their schools. Many of the 40 new charters opened since the Gates Compact agreement have been located within 1.5 miles of the 49 public schools closed due to low enrollments.”

You might call this turmoil, but the promoters of Portfolio School Reform call it “creative disruption,” a business school concept that is supposed to improve things. Except it didn’t work that way in Chicago.  The school district’s budget has continued to shrink (due partly to problems with the state budget and more problems with Illinois school funding and other problems with an underfunded pension system), and all this disruption has resulted in massive cuts to programs and services in the public schools themselves. Here is the conclusion of the new Roosevelt University report: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system.  While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

Here is Jeff Bryant, commenting last week for the Education Opportunity Network, on what school choice means for the public.  Commenting on pleas from people like Betsy DeVos to let all parents have a choice, Bryant writes: “All of this sounds just so sensible until you take into consideration that individuals don’t pay for public education; the taxpayers do. And the choices parents make about their children’s education don’t just affect their children; they have an impact on the whole community. Businesses are free to create whatever demand they want in the marketplace, whether it’s for better-tasting food or for more convenient service, and how individuals choose to respond to those demands is of no concern to the greater public unless it endangers lives or infringes on freedoms.  But the demand for education is a given, it’s universal, and it’s ultimately of interest to our whole society.”

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher who died last month, very precisely summarizes, in more theoretical terms, what has happened in Chicago: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

I Wonder if It Is Possible to Teach a Billionaire Heiress about Opportunity Cost

I learned about opportunity cost as a child, although I had no idea that was the lesson I was being taught. In the spring of 1957, my parents needed to replace our 1947 Dodge.  My sister and I begged my parents to buy a car with four doors, so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to get in the back seat, and my father agreed, finally.  But he said that my sister and I would have to pay for what he believed was an extravagant splurge by giving up our allowance for the rest of the year. I don’t imagine we paid for those car doors with seven months’ worth of our dime allowance, but we did learn that in our family where we didn’t have a lot of money, if you really wanted to buy something expensive, you’d probably have to give up something else.

Years later in college when, as an English major, I took Economics 101 as an elective, I was astonished to discover that economists had actually created a name for that rule my father insisted we practice in our family. Very early in the semester, my professor Robert Haveman, taught us the concept of opportunity cost.  He must have believed this is a very basic concept, because in his little economics textbook, The Market System, Professor Haveman describes it on the third page: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose…. The decision is much easier if family income increases, but choice is still necessary. The cost of the new item may be considered the loss of the opportunity to spend that income for other purposes. This is the opportunity cost principle applied to individual consumer behavior.” Haveman continues: “The same principle applies to societies because of the scarcity of means relative to ends.”

Betsy DeVos inherited a fortune from her father’s car-parts company, and I presume that in Betsy DeVos’s family economic choices were easier than in my family—without obvious lessons on opportunity cost.  Maybe there could be not merely one car with four doors, but instead several cars filling a garage with four doors. It has certainly become clear that, as our nation’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos doesn’t grasp Haveman’s definition of opportunity cost as the concept applies to societies—in this case to school finance.

It happened again last week when DeVos visited the public schools in Van Wert, Ohio. The day after her visit, she had an OpEd column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which she complimented Van Wert’s schools. But after a few paragraphs she quickly forgot about the schools she had visited and began pushing her one idea: parents in Van Wert need more choices.  Here is what her column said: “Van Wert is a good school district. It is meeting the needs of many students. Yet the parents or guardians of nearly 20 percent of students who live within Van Wert’s district lines choose to send their children to a nearby district or to a different option in Van Wert instead.  In doing so, these parents are seeking the education that’s best for their child…. Every parent should have that option.  School choice is pro-parent and pro-student.”  Ohio offers public school districts the option to participate in cross-district open enrollment, through which students can take their state aid to a neighboring school district.  Apparently Van Wert participates in open-enrollment, and some parents in Van Wert transport their children to a neighboring town, though there has been a huge argument in the Ohio press since DeVos’s column was published about whether 20 percent isn’t a highly exaggerated figure for Van Wert’s participation in that program.

Betsy DeVos’s column indicates, however, that she missed the “opportunity cost” lesson Van Wert’s parents and educators tried to teach her. Van Wert, a small town near the Indiana border, is different from the urban, inner-ring, Cleveland suburban school district where my children went through public schools, but we have one thing in common: Ohio’s problematic method of funding schools.  For all of the thirty years I’ve known this system, our legislature has been dominated by people who have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to vote to raise taxes; many of our legislators also take pride in being members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In Ohio, our legislature has set it up so that we do not have unvoted tax increases. All tax increases including school levies must by voted on at the polls. And… in the DeRolph school funding decision, the courts faulted Ohio’s school funding for being “overly reliant on local property tax.”  And… embedded in our state constitution is a local property tax freeze. Our tax freeze means that any school levy cannot ever generate more real dollars for a school district than on the day it passes.  If property appreciates in value, the state rolls back the voted millage to keep the levy amount flat.

This all means that when inflation naturally occurs, and the state fails to increase its contribution, parents in every school district must create and fund a political committee to go out and campaign for the needed tax increase. The levies sometimes fail, and the parents have to try again, and sometimes again and again.  But inflation keeps occurring and when levies fail, school nurses and librarians begin to cover several buildings, and students on high school football teams have to pay to play. When a levy finally passes, it is very often to get back what was lost—to bring back the librarian to every school library, to make football free, to reduce class size in Kindergarten back below 22 students. In this financial climate—the very definition of opportunity cost—it is difficult for a school district afford something new and glitzy, something like the championship robotics team Van Wert’s voters have managed to fund and that we all learned about last week when Betsy DeVos visited Van Wert.  I learned to understand this public example of opportunity cost back between 1988 and 1991 when I organized a grassroots, door-to-door campaign for three school levies—with 700 volunteers each time ringing doorbells to convince neighbors to vote “yes.”  Then in 1993, I co-chaired a successful levy campaign after two failed attempts. Across Ohio, school levy fights, to be successful, have to be constructed to pull the community together on behalf of the public—the community and all of its children.

Erica Green, the NY Times reporter who traveled to Van Wert to cover the Betsy DeVos school visit, listened carefully. While I know she does not have an in-depth understanding of the school funding complexities behind the comments she reports in her article, she captures some of the urgency of the parents and educators who described the dedication of the Van Wert community to its public schools. Green notes the community’s pride in having passed its levies. She describes what Linda Haycock, newly elected from western Ohio to the state school board said to Betsy DeVos: “Spending federal money or any other taxpayer funds on vouchers for private school tuition is looked on harshly… ‘really theft’…  ‘It’s saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it’s really going somewhere else.'”  And Green continues: “Van Wert educators said they believed their biggest threat was school choice. An expanded voucher program would be ‘potentially catastrophic’ for the district’s finances, said Mike Ruen, the district’s treasurer.”

Teachers and school administrators alike carefully explained what would be the implications for Van Wert of the federal budget cuts proposed by DeVos’s Department of Education. Green describes the early childhood literacy specialist telling Betsy DeVos about how any reallocation of Title I funding to support expansion of school choice would undermine a program that helps very poor children with early literacy. Green quotes the school superintendent telling DeVos, “We struggle every day to make ends meet.” Green reports that an elementary school principal told DeVos, “Our funding is the blood, sweat and tears of our community, and we are held accountable for that.”

The parents, teachers, superintendent, and school treasurer in Van Wert were explaining to Betsy DeVos the essence of Professor Haveman’s lesson on the public implications of opportunity cost: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose.” In Ohio, we already have some school choice and we don’t want it expanded.  Our long experiment with vouchers has meant that tax dollars are taken to support private school education. Charter schools—unregulated and out of control in our state—have created another drain on scarce public school resources. And, as we saw in Van Wert, there is also the option for school districts to participate in cross-district open enrollment. When Betsy DeVos preaches about giving all parents a choice to have the education services they desire, I wonder whether she actually understands that sending money away from the public schools to privatized alternatives removes essential services from the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

In a recent column in the Appleton Post-Crescent in Wisconsin—another ALEC-dominated state, where Governor Scott Walker and the legislative majority also adhere to the anti-tax pledge Grover Norquist has encouraged them to sign—Jane Parish Yang, a member of the Fox City Advocates for Public Education, defines the meaning of the public—“how a nation comes into being by shared events and shared values, and how, in our case, a community comes into being with a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ and strength from all young people being educated in order to become productive citizens. The founding citizens of Wisconsin knew that shared, democratic values from a public education open to each and every student would be the basis for the community flourishing because of that shared experience. But what would those same founders make of present-day Wisconsin, in which a segment of the citizenry rejects public schools… and wishes to segregate itself within its own traditions but at public expense? That is what proponents of so-called school choice are asking the public to agree to: we choose, you pay.”

The Will of the People Doesn’t Seem to Be with Trump and DeVos on School Privatization

On Tuesday, Tony Evers was elected by Wisconsin voters to his third term as state superintendent of schools, and he wasn’t merely re-elected.  It was a tsunami.  Evers carried 70 percent of the vote and his opponent, Lowell Holtz, only 30 percent.

Why is Tony Evers’ re-election as Wisconsin state superintendent of schools so remarkable?  Well… Wisconsin is one of 25 super-majority Republican, trifecta states: Governor Scott Walker is an outspoken, far-right Republican, and both houses of the legislature boast huge Republican majorities. Wisconsin is the home of the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee, then Racine, and, in 2013, expanded statewide.  It is the state where, back in 2011, Governor Scott Walker and his legislature severely limited collective bargaining for public employees including teachers. It is a state whose legislature is now also considering an ALEC-designed plan for Education Savings Accounts—yet another kind of school vouchers. It is the state where Governor Walker tried to re-write the mission statement of its flagship university to emphasize job training and delete this clause: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”  And it is the home of Reince Priebus.

So what happened in Tuesday’s  election for state schools superintendent? Here is Scott Bauer of the Associated Press explaining the election of Evers over his opponent, Lowell Holtz: “The win keeps Evers in place as the only Democratic-backed statewide official in a meaningful office. Even though the race is officially nonpartisan, Evers had strong support from Democrats along with state and national teachers’ unions who favored his positions in support of increased funding for public schools and opposition to private school vouchers… Evers and Holtz disagreed on almost every major issue that’s come up in the campaign. Evers opposes expanding the private school choice program and supports Common Core academic standards, increasing funding for public schools and addressing teacher shortages across the state… Both candidates supported Walker’s budget sending $650 million more to schools. But they disagreed on Walker’s requirement that the bulk of that money be tied to schools that require employees to pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs. Evers opposes the provision, while Holtz backs it.”

Unlike our national education secretary, Betsy DeVos, both Wisconsin candidates brought some experience working in public schools, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “A Plymouth native, Evers, 65, worked as a teacher and principal before joining the Department of Public Instruction. Holtz, 59, worked as a parochial school teacher, police officer and principal, and has served as superintendent in the Whitnall and Beloit school districts.”

Meanwhile…

While the public school guy, Tony Evers was winning in Wisconsin with 70 percent of the vote, Betsy DeVos went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and advocated school vouchers for families who are perfectly content with the schools provided by the U.S. Department of Defense for families on military bases. Valerie Strauss covered DeVos’s visit to Fort Bragg and provides the background on these schools: “More than 73,000 students attend 168 Defense Department schools in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity, an agency that runs pre-K through 12th grade education programs for stationed military families. At Fort Bragg, N.C., there are eight schools that run from pre-K to eighth grade, with students attending high school off the military installation.”

It turns out the folks at Fort Bragg were not so impressed with Betsy DeVos’s proposal for school vouchers. A PTA president in one of the local pre-K-8 schools said: “I feel like public, private and charter schools need to be playing by the same rules….  and making sure the public system is up to snuff for our military children.”  She added that parents would like a public high school added right on the base instead of any kind of voucher program. A spokesperson for the Military Impacted Schools Association said: “Rather than distributing scarce resources in the form of a new voucher program, the Federal Government should be making good on its obligation to all federally impacted school districts.”

And on Tuesday, the same day as Wisconsin’s election, Donald Trump expressed some impressions about education at a town hall event in Washington, D.C.  He tried, not very convincingly, for a “shock doctrine” tone—implying that because things are so terrible, we need to privatize.  Valerie Strauss shares his comments: “Why are the numbers so horrific in terms of education and what happens when somebody goes through school and then they can’t read?”  Then he added that public education in American cities is “rough.”   By contrast, “(S)ome of the charter schools in New York have been amazing. They’ve done incredibly well.  People can’t get in, you can’t get in.”

On the one hand, we have Donald Trump’s wandering thinking about education and Betsy DeVos’s relentless and tiresome dogma, and, on the other hand, there is the political will of Wisconsin’s voters, 70 percent of whom voted for the public schools advocate. Here is a statement from a North Carolina lawyer and politician that perfectly describes the disconnect between what happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday and the education-speak of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “DeVos’s clueless testimony at her confirmation hearing was an embarrassment to billionaire dilettantes everywhere, but ‘alternatives’ to public schools remain wildly popular with what Bernie Standers calls ‘the billionaire class.’ Most Americans are more skeptical. Americans don’t regard public schools as creeping socialism or public school teachers as union thugs, and don’t support looting public schools to pay for charters or private schools.”

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.