Secretary Cardona Begins to Correct DeVos’s College Loan Policies that Undermined Vulnerable College Students’ Access to Education

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has begun repairing some of the injustice of Betsy DeVos’s policies in the federal college loan program administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

In an extremely significant first step, two weeks ago, Cardona replaced Mark A Brown, who had been appointed by Betsy DeVos in 2019 to oversee the Department’s enormous student loan program. Brown is known to have favored the interests of the for-profit colleges that depend for their existence on tuition derived from student loans. As Brown’s replacement, Cardona has appointed Richard Cordray, a dogged advocate for the students and military veterans who have been preyed upon by for-profit colleges.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports: “Education Secretary Miguel Carrdona… named Richard Cordray, the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to head the federal office that oversees the government’s $1.5 trillion student loan portfolio. Cordray led the bureau’s crackdown on consumer abuses in debt collection, student loan servicing, and for-profit colleges, garnering the respect of advocates and drawing the ire of those industries. His selection signals tougher oversight of the Education Department’s contractors and enforcement of the rules governing federal student aid… During his six-year tenure at the CFPB, which he joined in 2011, Cordray frequently clashed with the financial industry and conservatives over his aggressive regulation. His efforts to weed out poor servicing of student loans and predatory career training schools at times put him at odds with the Education Department… The CFPB under Cordray’s direction brought some of the most high-profile student lending cases in recent years. Among them: a lawsuit against the now-defunct for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges for steering students into private loans that had interest rates as high as 15 percent.”

In a piece for The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner summarizes some of the outrageous Trump-DeVos abuses Cordray will need to address in the Department’s college loan program: “For starters, there is the appalling story of management of cancellation of debt for people who do ten years of public service. This is authorized under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But under Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, the Education Department did everything possible to deny this relief. To date, just 1.26 percent of applicants have received debt relief… More broadly, Cordray needs to reverse the Education Department’s Trump-era priority—from collecting as much money as possible to serving the needs of students and former students now in debt. One way to do that is to exercise much tougher oversight of the for-profit loan servicers on contract to the department, who often give bad advice to students in order to maximize their own profits.”

In March, Cardona granted debt relief to approximately 72,000 college students whose claims that their mostly for-profit colleges had defrauded them had already been adjudicated by Betsy DeVos’s staff. And at the end of March, Cardona also extended a freeze on loan payments and interest to borrowers who have defaulted during the pandemic and set the interest rate at zero.  POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reported: “The Education Department said that it will immediately suspend the collection of 1.14 million federally backed student loans that are in default. The relief will apply retroactively… and the agency will refund the tax returns and wages that it seized from borrowers who have defaulted since March 13, 2020, when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency because of COVID-19.”

However, many defrauded borrowers agree with Kuttner that despite some progress in Biden’s first few months in office, there is an urgent need to speed up relief after years of delay under Betsy DeVos.  On Friday, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reported: “(W)hen it comes to cases involving federal student aid, consumer attorneys say the Biden administration is moving at a glacial pace. ‘I’m shocked that more than 100 days in we’re still in an active appeal on something that is so opposed to what the Biden administration claims it’s about.’  said Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, a group representing borrowers in multiple Trump-Era cases….  Education Department spokeswoman Kelly Leon said the agency’s ‘new leadership is working actively to address concerns relating to the student financial aid policies of the prior administration.'”

Correcting DeVos era injustices for college students involves needed action in more than the loan program itself. Cardona has taken several steps to undo Trump-DeVos era policies that excluded vulnerable college students from pandemic relief assistance.

Politico’s Michael Stratford reports that beginning with the CARES Act in March 2020 and in all of the subsequent COVID-19 relief bills, “colleges must pass along roughly half of their COVID relief dollars directly to students in the form of emergency financial aid cash grants.”  However, in the Trump-DeVos years undocumented students, including DREAMERS who have lived in the United States since they were young children, and international students were shut out of this assistance: “The Biden administration is reversing a Trump-era policy that barred undocumented college students and others from receiving federal relief grants meant to help pay for expenses like food, housing, and child care during the coronavirus pandemic. Education Secretary Cardona on Tuesday (May 11, 2021) finalized a new regulation that allows colleges to distribute tens of billions (of dollars) in federal pandemic relief grants to all students, regardless of their immigration status or whether they qualify for federal student aid.”

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel further explains DeVos’s rationale for excluding undocumented and international students from relief all last year: “After confusing and conflicting guidance, DeVos issued a rule in June asserting that only those who can participate in federal student aid programs can receive (pandemic relief) money.  It shut out undocumented and international students…. The Trump administration said a 1996 welfare reform law bars those groups from receiving public aid.”  Now, under Cardona’s leadership, “The Education Department said the final rule better reflects the intent of Congress and makes clear that emergency aid can support all students who are or were enrolled in college during the pandemic.”  The rule had been challenged by hundreds of colleges: “Many colleges and universities have been using their own institutional funds to lend a hand to undocumented and international students… Hundreds of schools urged the department to reverse course in public comments on the DeVos rule…. ‘Denying emergency grants to DACA and undocumented students wasn’t just legally questionable, it was a moral failing, and I’m relieved to see this finally corrected,’ said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.”

As we watch Secretary Cardona begin to address the injustices in education department programs intended to support vulnerable students secure a higher education, we more fully grasp the scope of the damage imposed under Betsy DeVos’s leadership.

How the Bad Old Third Grade Guarantee May Be Reborn to Hurt Children in the Post-COVID Era

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss republished an article about learning loss, an article that raises some very serious concerns about what will happen next fall when we can presume that most children will be back in school.

The article is by a former teacher, now an editor at a website called Edutopia.  Steven Merrill writes: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.  Over 500,000 Americans have died.  Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year…  Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”

We know that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is requiring states to administer the usual, federally mandated standardized tests for this school year. Cardona says he doesn’t intend for the tests to be used for school accountability, but instead to see which schools and school districts need the most help—a strange justification because the tests were designed for and have always been used for holding schools and teachers and even students accountable. And the punitive policies these tests trigger in schools across the country are well established. What if state legislatures and state departments of education merely use the test scores in this bizarre post-COVID school year to trigger the same old punishments we’ve been watching for years now?

For example, consider the Third Grade Guarantee, which originally came from Jeb Bush’s right-wing, Foundation for Excellence in Education, or as it is now called ExcelinEdCarly Sitrin, for Politico’s Recovery Lab recalls the history: “Republican school choice policymakers in the early 2000s… zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos… If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) creates model far-right legislation—bills that can be simply adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Back in 2012, the Third Grade Guarantee was included in an ALEC model law.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

There is, however a downside to retaining students, even in the elementary school years. Children who are held back a grade are stigmatized as failures and more likely than other children to drop out of school before high school graduation. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

And David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)

Sitrin profiles the dilemma in this COVID-19 school year of students in Tennessee, where policy makers have decided that, depending on standardized test scores, students whose third-grade reading scores are lagging will be held back in third grade, on top of missing out on all of the last year of schooling with their peers.

Sitrin profiles the family of David Scruggs Jr., who has helped his second grader in Nashville with online schooling all year: “For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home… Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade… Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to COVID-related learning loss… (I)n 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children,, but by state officials.”

Stephen Merrill worries that states’ test-and-punish policies will merely further stigmatize the most vulnerable students who will be “sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues… Can we—should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year—find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?”

Lots of New Voucher Proposals Popping Up in State Legislatures: Did Betsy DeVos Leave a Legacy?

Despite that Trump’s privatizer-in-chief, Betsy DeVos has left Washington, D.C. and that President Biden has focused on supporting neighborhood public schools and finally getting them open full time after months of COVID-19 disruption, there is growing concern about the number of bills currently in state legislatures to expand vouchers of all kinds—plain old private school tuition vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings accounts.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that the Network for Public Education has tracked bills for new voucher programs or expansions of vouchers in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire.  Strauss reminds us that Betsy DeVos’s skewed understanding of the meaning of public education has not disappeared from the fifty statehouses: “DeVos and her allies, especially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), publicly called for a definition that essentially said: If public dollars are used for any kind of schooling that makes it public education—even if the public has no say in how a school operates.”  She quotes DeSantis: “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.”

Why have so many voucher bills been introduced in state legislatures right now? The Huffington Post‘s senior education reporter Rebecca Klein explains: “In the few weeks of 2021, state legislators have introduced a wave of new bills designed to expand or create new voucher, tax credit and education savings programs.  While these programs are often controversial—eliciting staunch opposition from public school groups and teachers unions—advocates say they have seen new momentum after a wave of Republican wins in statehouses and a pandemic that has forced millions of schoolchildren to learn from home.  So far, new legislation related to private school choice has been introduced in over 15 states during 2021.”

After exploring the details of some of the state legislative proposals to expand school privatization, Jeff Bryant considers why they are appearing now: “What’s telling about these bills is that proponents of school privatization clearly see the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion is not necessarily on their side. Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly.” But, continues Bryant, “School choice proponents also see the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.  Many parents are beyond distraught with their children’s situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which is most of America, state and local governments have generally not invested in the personnel and resources that are essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning. Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom are also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, see this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools… It’s true the pandemic is driving great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.”

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa adds: “With millions of children still shut out of closed school buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents have looked for months for different options to provide an education for their children. In the early weeks of 2021, lawmakers in nearly a third of the states have responded with bills intended to establish or expand on things like tax-credit-scholarships and education savings accounts.”

Howver, Ujifusa wonders: “Is it a groundswell or a mirage?… (F)ans of school choice… see a pretty straightforward dynamic that will help their issue. In addition to traditional legislative measures, the interest in learning pods—which are informal groups set up by parents to help groups of students during school building closures—could be another source of energy for the movement… But the extent to which many families might simply wish for a return to normalcy and for their children to go back to their prior schools, extracurricular activities, and social networks, could also play a big role in how much K-12 education choice grows in the pandemic’s wake.”

Klein Quotes Catherine Dunn of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, which is part of Public Funds Public Schools, a coalition of organizations opposed to the privatization of public education “We’re not seeing a lot of bipartisan support for the proposals we’re tracking — it’s a result of a lot of the gains from Republicans (in state legislatures) who are pushing these through.”

And it is not as though these bills are all sailing through without controversy. In Depth New Hampshire‘s Garry Rayno describes a confrontational hearing before the New Hampshire House Education Committee where the legislators debated “education freedom accounts” neo-vouchers designed to give parents freedom to use state tax dollars to choose from an array of in and out of school services the parents believe are educational: “A multi-hour public hearing before the House Education Committee drew testimony from as far away as Arizona and as close as Manchester as both sides turned out in force to make their case for or against House Bill 20, a priority of the Republican legislative leadership.  3,198 people signed in to oppose HB 20 while 600 people signed in support and five signed in as neutral. Due to high turn out the hearing was recessed and will resume next Thursday, February 11.”

Proponents of vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts define school choice as individual freedom from government and they conceptualize parents as consumers in a marketplace.  What they never mention is the cost to the public. How much money do the vouchers cost?  Where will the money come from?  When a few students leave and carry away the voucher, what is the cost to the students in the public schools?

At the end of January, Public Funds Public Schools, the collaboration of the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, released a fact sheet to clarify the financial loss to public schools when legislatures establish voucher programs.  Here is some of what they would caution state legislatures considering starting up or expanding voucher programs:

“Voucher programs concentrate students who require increased resources in the public schools.  Because private schools can refuse to admit or provide adequate services for students with disabilities, English learners, and others who may require increased resources for an equitable education, these students are more frequently educated in public schools.  Private schools participating in voucher programs may also ‘counsel out’ or expel students they deem ‘high cost.'”

 “Pubic schools, which serve the vast majority of students, have substantial ‘fixed costs.’  Because students who participate in voucher programs exit their pubic school districts from different schools, grade levels and classrooms, districts are not able to proportionally reduce facilities, staff, programs, and other fixed costs to fully offset the loss of funding that is diverted to voucher programs.”

Finally: “Voucher programs subsidize private education for students who would not otherwise have attended public school.  It is not true that voucher programs simply shift funds that would have been spent on public school student to pay for their private education.  When states establish private school voucher programs, families already paying for or planning to use private education often participate… It is inaccurate to assume that students receiving a voucher switched from public to private education.”

New Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Should Not Require Annual Standardized Testing in This COVID-19 School Year

Last weekend, the NY Times editorialized to demand that President Elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education promptly “clear the wreckage” from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. The newspaper is correct to criticize Betsy DeVos’s abandonment of the department’s mission of protecting the civil rights of America’s public school students. And the editorial writers deserve praise for condemning DeVos’s dogged support for for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of indebted student borrowers.

But pretty quickly the Times editorial board steps into the old trap of endorsing federally mandated high stakes standardized testing and the collection of big data at the expense of the children and teachers who are struggling to make it through this school year being shunted back and forth from on-line schooling to in-person school and then back on-line as the COVID-19 numbers rise and fall. The editorial board has slipped into the No Child Left Behind mindset that values data over the lived experience of students and teachers:

“Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math. However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.”

That is, of course, what No Child Left Behind and its massive state-by-state testing regime was supposed to be about, except that nobody ever “allocated educational resources strategically” once we had all the big data. President Elect Joe Biden has explained that across the United States: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.” Despite wide agreement that twenty years of data-driven school accountability failed to drive investment into the poorest schools, the narrative has been deeply embedded into the conventional wisdom.

It will be up to our new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to decide whether to cancel this spring’s federally mandated standardized tests in language arts and math for a second year. Betsy DeVos, to her credit, let the states and the nation’s public schools off the hook last year due to the chaos of the pandemic.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized the past two decades of mandated standardized testing and the choice which now faces Education Secretary Cardona: “The annual spring testing regime—complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing ‘pep rallies’—has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable.  First, under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas.  Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts—at least in part—on test scores.”

Strauss continues: “Supporters say that (the tests) are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing. Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students get wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school—and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.”

Criticizing the NY Times editorial, Diane Ravitch elaborates as she suggests that Dr. Cardona should cancel the mandated state tests for a second year: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know… Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

Writing for Education Week last month, Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of research and evaluation methodology  at the University of Colorado School of Education cautions that, Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake. Like many experts, Shepard worries about the use of standardized tests for high stakes accountability: “Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for week-long test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing test-like worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. Recent studies of data-driven decision making warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements… Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported… Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption. Testing this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic.”

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a profound and thorough exploration of the past two decades of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their schools and their teachers, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz concisely explains why the federal use of widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators has not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.

Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Kamala Harris Has Strongly Supported Public Schools and Cracked Down on Unscrupulous For-Profit Charter Management Companies and For-Profit Colleges

Senator Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s choice as the Democratic candidate for vice president, has a solid record supporting public schools. As California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017, Harris also worked aggressively to protect California’s citizens from fraud committed by the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management company.  She also won a lawsuit in 2016 to provide relief to student borrowers who had been victimized by fraudulent advertising by for-profit colleges and trade schools.

The National Education Association (NEA) reports: “Harris gave her maiden speech on the Senate floor in opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, focusing on her utter lack of qualifications and experience as a teacher.  In support of the #Red4Ed movement, she also supported educators’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, California in 2019 saying, ‘Teachers in my hometown of Oakland will begin striking tomorrow because they know they deserve a raise. It’s shameful that they don’t earn enough to live in the communities where they teach.'” The 2018-2019 #Red4Ed teachers’ strikes across the United States were instrumental for forcing a number of states to remedy some of the deep budget cuts lingering from the 2008 recession, cuts that had, in Los Angeles, for example, pushed class sizes to over 40 students in public schools serving some of the city’s poorest children, many of them learning English.

NEA reports that, like Joe Biden, Harris has pushed for “increasing funding for Title I schools to make sure every student has a nurse and social worker… in addition to providing incentives to states to conduct racial and resource equity audits, increase their public school spending, and adopt more equitable funding formulas.” Like Biden she has advocated for fully funding important and federally mandated programs for disabled students. When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the promise was that 40 percent of the cost of the programs would be federally funded. Both Biden and Harris have said that that Congress must work toward 40 percent of IDEA funding, while today, Congress funds only 14.6 percent of these programs with the rest of the investment coming from local school district budgets.

As California Attorney General, Kamala Harris sued the nation’s largest for-profit, online charter school management company, K12 Inc., for unscrupulous practices in California. In 2016, the LA Times’ Howard Blume reported: “The state attorney general’s office has reached an $8.5 million settlement with an online charter school it had accused of false advertising, misleading parents, and inadequate instruction. The settlement, announced late Friday, closes the state’s civil investigation of the 13 branches of California Virtual Academy, but it does not end the challenges for the schools and Virginia-based K12 Inc., which the state had accused of controlling the charters for the company’s benefit.  Blume quotes then California Attorney General, Kamala Harris: “All children deserve, and are entitled under the law, to an equal education… K12 and its schools misled parents and the state of California by claiming taxpayer dollars for questionable student attendance, misstating student success and parent satisfaction, and loading nonprofit charities with debt.”

As California Attorney General, Kamala Harris also fought to protect students who had been cheated by unscrupulous for-profit colleges, which too often leave their students with worthless degrees and outrageous debt. These colleges traditionally fund their operations with federally backed loans and special federal loans for military veterans. Writing for Inside Higher Education, Kery Murakami explains: “(S)he is known for having sued Corinthian Colleges while she was California’s attorney general, accusing the for-profit chain of false and predatory advertising, intentionally making misrepresentations to students, securities fraud, and unlawful use of military seals in advertisements… and in 2016, Harris won a $1.1 billion federal court judgment from the now-bankrupt Corinthian. While that lawsuit was underway, she asked a federal court to prevent Corinthian from enrolling new students.  As attorney general and a Democratic senator from California, Harris has pushed for debt cancellation for former Corinthian students.”

Murakami quotes Kamala Harris’ reflection on what she learned from her work on the Corinthian lawsuit: “There have been a rash of corporate predators who have taken advantage of—and often ruined—vulnerable people. Among the worst examples of these predators are the for-profit colleges that became the darlings of Wall Street….”

The closure of some for-profit colleges like Corinthian and ITT Technical Institutes did not end the injustices in for-profit higher education. Similar institutions continue to saddle their students with massive debts the students will struggle ever to repay.  Writing for Forbes, Zack Friedman explains that Kamala Harris, now serving in the U.S. Senate, has continued to champion the needs of people carrying debt burdens from unscrupulous for-profit colleges: “(I)n 2016, as California’s attorney general, Harris helped to secure a $1.1 billion judgment against Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit education company. Harris also has supported the borrower to defense to repayment rule, which helps borrowers who are victims of fraud receive student loan debt cancellation.” Despite efforts by Harris and others in Congress, “President Donald Trump vetoed a major student loan forgiveness bill regarding borrower defense to repayment. In June (2020), the House of Representatives failed to override the president’s veto.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has relentlessly promoted the interests of for-profit colleges and trade schools.  DeVos has persistently re-written rules and guidance to block loan forgiveness for former students who were defrauded by the false claims of these for-profit institutions. In contrast, Kamala Harris has been willing to use her position as California Attorney General and U.S. Senator to take action to protect defrauded students. Harris supported the Congressional effort to ensure student debt forgiveness which Trump recently vetoed.

If Biden and Harris prevail in November, we can look forward to a sharp turn away from the philosophy and policies of Betsy DeVos, who has unstintingly promoted private schools at the expense of America’s system of public education.

Biden Offers Hope for Turning Around Awful DeVos Education Policy

This summer some people have said it seems like deja vu all over again. In 2009, right after Barack Obama was elected President, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used over $4 billion of the public education dollars Congress had appropriated as part of a huge federal stimulus package and attached rules that made states adopt Duncan’s own pet programs in order to qualify for the money.  Now Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have distributed CARES Act dollars in a way that favors DeVos’s favorite charter schools and private schools at the expense of what she calls “government” schools—the ones our society counts on to serve 50 million of our children.

The Secretary of Education—and in the case of Payroll Protection Program dollars, the Small Business Administration—can control the distribution of education stimulus dollars, because dispersing relief money is administered by the administration without direct Congressional oversight unless prohibitions for particular practices are written into the enabling legislation.

You will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Arne Duncan administered a $4.3 billion Race to the Top Program, a $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, and a $650 million Innovation Grant program. Duncan and  the U.S. Department of Education conditioned these grants on getting states to change their own laws to adopt what were later recognized as the most controversial priorities of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. To qualify for Race to the Top, for example, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization, and adopt “college-and-career-ready” standards, which, in practice, meant they were agreeing to adopt what became the overly constrictive, unwieldy and expensive Common Core and accompanying tests.  Underneath all of these programs was also a big change in the philosophy underneath federal education policy. Despite that races with winners always create losers, Duncan modeled his trademark education programs on the way philanthropies award funds: through competition. As the Department of Education diverted some Title I funds into competitive programs rather than simply awarding them through the Title I Formula, which is designed to supplement state and local funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children, the Duncan programs enhanced education only for the children in the winning states and school districts.

Now Betsy DeVos has set out to divert some of the CARES Act relief funding, passed by Congress last March, to support privately operated charter schools and private schools instead of the public schools tor which most of the funds were intended by Congress. Public schools need federal stimulus relief to compensate for big budget cuts in state school funding as state budgets collapsed in the COVID-19 recession, and public schools need to make all sorts of expensive adjustments to ensure safety during the pandemic. But all over the country charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated were allowed to take advantage of their public/private status and take CARES Act Payroll Protection Program (PPP) dollars awarded through the Small Business Administration and intended to help small businesses maintain employment. The Network for Public Education recently reported: “The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools informed its members via email in March that it had successfully lobbied for charter schools to receive PPP funds and provided instructions on how much funding could be obtained.” “More than 1,300 charter schools and their nonprofit or for-profits and management companies secured between $925 million and $2.2 billion through PPP.”

In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created guidance that redirects a disproportionate amount of a school district’s CARES Act public school relief assistance to the private schools located within the geographic boundary of the school district.  Congress distributed CARES Act education aid through the Title I Formula—which targets assistance to school districts with concentrations of poor children and ALSO provides that a school district will provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within the district boundaries. However, DeVos set up CARES Act guidance to insist that the private schools would receive a portion of the CARES Act dollars proportional not just for the poor students enrolled in a private school, but instead for the private school’s full enrollment.

All this is, of course, extremely worrisome, because billions of CARES Act dollars needed in America’s public schools right now have found their way into charter schools, charter management organizations, and private schools. But there is an important difference in the way Arne Duncan was able to manipulate states to adopt his policies and what is currently happening.

Betsy DeVos has not been able to create the political to leverage to promote her policies in a way that they will survive her tenure.  Most of us hope Betsy DeVos’s effort to use CARES Act dollars to support charter schools and private schools is her final push, her final personal opportunity to expand and support privatized schooling at public expense. When, in 2009, Arne Duncan used federal stimulus to set up Race to the Top and his other grant competitions, he had just been appointed. He served as education secretary until December of 2015, when Congress finally got fed up with his top down intervention in the nation’s public schools and when his policies and the No Child Left Behind policies on which they were based had begun falling out of favor. Duncan’s signature strategy during his six year tenure was basically to use federal grants to bribe states to embed his pet programs into their own laws, a strategy which gave his programs lasting power because rescinding them would require action by each of the state legislatures which had adopted Duncan’s policies. For example, some states are still evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, even though the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association have shown students’ test scores are invalid and unreliable for evaluating teachers.

If President Trump is re-elected and Betsy DeVos is re-appointed as education secretary, all bets are off.

But—and I’ll admit it is still a long time until November—I believe it looks increasingly unlikely that DeVos will be our education secretary beginning in 2021.  Further, there is no evidence that Congress has bought into her policies and no evidence that, apart from diverting CARES Act dollars and  making annual startup and expansion grants to particular charter schools and chains of charter schools under the 25-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, she has been able to inject her own favorite policies across the states. For four years President Trump has included her $5 billion Opportunity Scholarship tuition tax credit idea in the President’s proposed federal budget, and every year Congress has ignored the request.

If Joe Biden is elected in November, I believe we can look forward to an abrupt reversal of education policy. Biden will work to get the pandemic under control; then he will prioritize supporting the safe opening of public schools. He has also pledged to address what COVID-19 has shown us is the greatest challenge for our nation’s children: extreme inequality.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan prioritizes equity in the public schools: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals.  Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden would expand full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building.

Last week, when American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed a virtual AFT biennial convention, she bragged about Biden’s agenda for public education: “Imagine a world with: universal pre-K; debt forgiveness for educators; triple Title I funding, expanded Community Schools; supports for kids with special needs; high-stakes testing thrown out the window; charter school accountability; public colleges and universities tuition-free for families who earn less than $125,000. That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.”

Joe Biden’s education plan differs radically from Betsy DeVos’s priorities. Biden, whose education plan aims to strengthen our nation’s 98,000 traditional public schools, supports neither expanding privately operated charter schools nor diverting money out of public school budgets to pay for private school vouchers or tuition tax credit programs. Although Betsy DeVos may have used the CARES Act to reward privatized charter schools and private schools and although she may try the same tricks in the rules for distributing any further stimulus dollars, I am increasingly hopeful that Betsy DeVos will be replaced next winter, and a new administration will be far more attentive to addressing the urgent needs in the nation’s public schools.

When Betsy DeVos Goes on the Campaign Trail for President Trump, Here Is the Ideology She Promotes

If you listened to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Message last week, you know that he lauded school choice and attacked government schools: “The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream… Yet for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”

In the speech, Trump said these words as part of supporting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed $5 billion program for private school tuition vouchers. DeVos’s tax credit vouchers have been the centerpiece of the President’s proposed education budget for several years running, and so far they haven’t actually made it into federal policy.  Instead Congress has continued to support more essential federal programs, Title I for the schools serving children in poverty, and the mandated programming under the Individuals with Disability Education Act.  In the leanest years, Congress has kept these two essential federal supports at least flat-funded.  And in December of 2019, in the final budget for the current year, Congress added $450 million for Title I and $410 million for IDEA. Such modest increases for these essential programs are not enough to help our 90,000 public schools even keep up with the growing number of children qualifying for these programs, but at least Congress has been absolutely clear about its priorities: Neither tuition tax credits nor any other private school tuition vouchers are a current Congressional priority.

But despite that Betsy DeVos’s federal tuition tax credit proposal seems to be going nowhere, we are seeing and hearing from Betsy a lot these days.  As the President pursues his 2020 campaign for reelection, he has been sending Betsy on the campaign trail and to other events aimed at audiences who want more marketplace school choice.  She showed up with Vice President Mike Pence at a Wisconsin event celebrating the recent School Choice Week, and she is making calls to Ohio legislators to ensure they will ram through the rapid expansion of the state’s EdChoice Voucher program.

Late last week, POLITICO’s Michael Stratford described Betsy DeVos playing a new role at Trump political rallies and other events: to enhance the President’s reputation as someone who would strengthen school choice by expanding public spending for private and religious schools.

Here is Stratford’s analysis: “Betsy DeVos may be one of the most hated members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet, constantly mocked by Democrats on the campaign trail.  But away from the multitudes of critics and protesters, DeVos is being deployed like a rock star at Trump events as he makes a concerted push on education issues.  The campaign is using DeVos, a devout Christian, to beef up ties with voters who see her as the fiercest defender of conservative education policies like vouchers and free speech on college campuses.  The education secretary was among the dozens of surrogates the campaign tapped for its show of force during the Iowa caucuses on Monday.  She’s traveled to Wisconsin with Vice President Mike Pence for an official event promoting ‘school choice,’ her hallmark issue in office.  And on Wednesday night, DeVos headlined a lively Women for Trump campaign rally with Pence just outside Harrisburg, PA, at times generating thunderous applause… In full political attack mode, DeVos tore into the Democratic presidential candidates… accusing them of ‘trying to out-socialist one another.'”

It has been a long time since this blog focused directly on the thinking and language of Betsy DeVos and her attacks on government and public education.  Maybe, now that she is being deployed to political rallies around the country, it is a good time for a review.

Trump’s scornful language about “government schools” comes right from DeVos, who, in 2015, before she became U.S. Secretary of Education, told a crowd at the SXSWed convention in Austin, Texas: “Government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.”

In 2017, after she was U.S. Secretary of Education, in a keynote address at the annual meeting of the (far-right) American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Betsy DeVos expounded at greater length about her view of government and the public schools: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them.” “Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…’Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’ I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. ‘Who is society?’ she asked.  ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families,’ she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.’” “This isn’t about school ‘systems. This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Pushed by people like Betsy DeVos (and Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, the Koch brothers, and the American Legislative Exchance Council), our society has moved over recent decades in the direction of promoting individual self-interest at the expense of community responsibility.  While Secretary DeVos’s thinking privileges the individual at the expense of our society, however, public education is premised on a very different idea: that a just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community.  Public schools are intended to serve the needs of particular children and at the same time serve our society by preparing citizens to participate actively in our democracy.  While Betsy DeVos may suggest that the sum of individual choices will automatically constitute the needs of society, there is no evidence that individual choices based on self-interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.

When Betsy DeVos promotes more choices for parents in an education marketplace, she ignores that competition is one of the defining operating mechanisms of any marketplace. Individuals compete to get ahead; markets always have winners and losers.  DeVos forgets about the need to protect the vulnerable. In America’s public schools, however, laws passed democratically and enforced by government protect public school families who are likely to lose out in a system based entirely on school choice: poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. Laws also protect the rights of families and children when public institutions violate their rights.

in their 2016 book, American Amnesia, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson disagree strenuously with the kind of philosophy of individualism promoted by Betsy DeVos.  They define the necessary role of government: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion.  Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community.  To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

One governmental role mentioned here by Hacker and Pierson is the role of government regulations, the very kind of regulations on behalf of society as a whole that the Trump administration has spent three years rolling back—from regulations to protect the environment to regulations protecting college students taking out huge loans when they are preyed upon by for-profit colleges, to civil guidance protecting LGBT students. When tax dollars are diverted to private schools through vouchers, students are being supported with government funds in schools lacking regulations to protect the rights of the students. Many private and religious schools do not, for example, provide the kind of special education programs that public schools are required to ensure.

It is also important to remember that while Betsy DeVos claims that “government really sucks,” her proposals for privatizing public education always assume that government will pay for the privatized alternatives.  The money for charter schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers is always extracted from the state and local budgets of public school systems.  Political economist Gordon Lafer has documented, for example, that in California, charter schools suck $57.3 million every year from the public Oakland Unified School District.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber describes what happens when institutions like public education are privatized: “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)

As Betsy DeVos promotes individualism and marketplace school choice during this election year, it is important to consider the importance of the social contract as Benjamin Barber defines it.

Is the Long Alliance of Betsy DeVos and Cory Booker Really Over?

I am not one for complimenting U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but you have to give her credit for one virtue: she is not an opportunist.  She remains a dogged school choice fanatic even though for three years now, she has been unable to get Congress to fund her highest priority, her Education Freedom Scholarship neovoucher-tuition tax credit program.

This year she launched her beginning-of-school-year tour at a Lutheran school in Milwaukee, home of the oldest school voucher program in the country. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the start of DeVos’s September tour: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began her 2019 back-to-school tour Monday.  Given that she runs a publicly funded department and that most U.S. students attend schools in traditional public systems, you might think she would go to one in a district working hard to improve its academic performance.  Nope.  She didn’t go to a public school, and she didn’t choose a city because of the achievements of its public schools.  Rather, she went to St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee and touted that city as the ‘birthplace of modern education freedom.’  That is a reference to a program started under a 1989 law that was the first in the country to give substantial public funding for students to use for private, nonsectarian schools.  It later expanded to include religious schools.  That program was part of what grew to be known as the ‘school choice’ movement, which seeks to find alternatives to traditional public school districts so families can decide for themselves where to send their children and to serve as an escape for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods.  For decades, DeVos has played a key role in that movement, pushing against critics who argue that using public funds to support choice schools undermines the traditional public system, and that it aims at privatizing the nation’s most important civic institution.”

This week, for the Washington Post, Michael Kranish profiles a politician who, unlike DeVos, has demonstrated that he is the consummate opportunist, Cory Booker, who is running for president as a Democrat and who is claiming this year that he has abjured his previous alliance with Betsy and Dick DeVos.  Booker served for years and years as a spokesperson for school vouchers. And he doesn’t appear to have given up his support for charter schools—another privately operated and publicly funded school choice scheme. Kranish details the history of Booker’s previous alliance with Betsy DeVos, an alliance that dates back to a pro-voucher speech Booker delivered nearly two decades ago, a speech in which Booker said: “Wealthy people… ‘have vouchers because they have the power to choose schools for those children.’ It was unfair, he said, that the country’s leaders in effect ‘say to the poorest, most vulnerable Americans that they cannot choose.'”

What Booker somehow missed understanding back in 2000—and what DeVos continues to deny— is that both vouchers and charters suck millions of essential tax dollars out of the public schools to follow a few children even as the majority of children in the public schools lose out. The economist, Gordon Lafer explains the fiscal realities very clearly (and while he focuses on charter schools, it is also true that voucher schemes similarly undermine public school districts as students carry away tax dollars in tuition vouchers for private and religious schools): “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

As if to emphasize her determination to support school choice whatever the cost to the public schools her U.S. Department of Education is supposed to protect, DeVos visited Detroit this past week—the city where 80 percent of the charter schools are known to be operated for-profit, even while the city’s public schools have languished.  Michigan Advance‘s Allison Donahue explains that, “Michigan now has the most for-profit-run charter schools in the country.”

DeVos and her husband, Dick, residents of Grand Rapids in western Michigan, once led an unsuccessful campaign to try to bring school vouchers to Michigan, and on her tour this past week, DeVos once again pitted her ideal of marketplace school choice to the systemic provision of public education.  The Detroit News quotes DeVos as she spoke last week at the Detroit Edison Public School Academy—one of 55 charter schools in Detroit.  As usual, DeVos cast the teachers unions as her enemy: “I am focused on doing what is right for students, individual students.  They are focused on protecting their system, protecting ‘what is’ at the expense of ‘what could be’ for kids… Their policies, their approach, has failed way too many kids, and it’s just inexcusable.  And I don’t apologize one bit for continuing to fight for every kid in this country.”

Betsy DeVos is an utterly consistent individualist, even though she seems not to grasp that the purpose of her job as U.S. Secretary of Education is to protect our nation’s system of public schools and to use the tools of her department—the Office for Civil Rights, for example—to ensure that public schools serve the needs and protect the rights of all American students.

Unlike DeVos, Cory Booker, the presidential candidate, cannot brag about consistency in his understanding of education policy.  Kranish examines Booker’s political career: “Cory Booker was a little-known member of the Newark City Council 19 years ago when he received an extraordinary invitation from a Michigan group connected to Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were leading Republican proponents of a state ballot initiative that would allow taxpayer-financed vouchers to pay for private schools. The DeVos family wanted Booker, an African American Democrat living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Jersey, to become the face of their effort in Michigan. ‘We wanted someone who wasn’t from the suburbs,’ Dick DeVos said at the time.  Booker accepted.  Appearing in the state at a Grand Rapids debate called ‘School Vouchers–Yes or No?,’ Booker represented ‘Yes.’  He passionately echoed the DeVos view that parents should be able to use tax dollars to pay for a child’s private school education, according to a video of the event obtained by The Washington Post.”  (You can see a video clip of the debate embedded in Kranish’s article.)

Kranish continues: “The debate was the prelude to an unlikely alliance with Betsy DeVos. Booker served with her on the boards of pro-voucher groups, attended numerous meetings with her across the country, and supported key parts of her agenda.  Like a number of elected officials representing cities with poor education records, Booker sought alternatives to a failing system. He decided to back vouchers and charter schools. Booker’s political career took off as a parade of wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers and others who supported DeVos’s ‘school choice’ viewpoint poured money into his campaigns and pet projects. But as Booker runs for president, his relationship with DeVos, his previous support of vouchers and his continuing praise for charter schools present potential roadblocks… In response, Booker has defended his record but also performed a series of reversals and denials. In the most striking instance, Booker said in a recent interview with The Post at his campaign headquarters here that he doesn’t recall his participation in the Michigan debate… Booker now takes a view opposite of his debate stance. He told The Post in a recent candidate survey that ‘the evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help—and in fact, hurt—the cause of educational equity.’  In his interview with The Post, Booker said that while he did initially support vouchers when he was on the City Council, he turned against them by the time he became mayor.”

However, in a stunning 2015 book, The Prize, Dale Russakoff describes Booker, then mayor of Newark, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to bring charter schools to Newark.  Booker recruited Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to make a $100 million donation to be used for that specific purpose and helped arrange for the splashy announcement of that gift on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

It is hard to be confident about where Cory Booker stands when it comes to public education.  Does he understand the fiscal realities posed for public schools by the expansion of marketplace school choice? All we can really know for sure about Cory Booker is that he has a history as an opportunist promoting what has been, so far, a successful political career.

Betsy DeVos as Clickbait

It surprised me to hear the word “clickbait” in Betsy DeVos’s working vocabulary.  I wonder if it wasn’t put into her speech—on Monday in Baltimore at the Education Writers Association’s annual meeting—by one of her more with-it staffers.  I confess that as a retired person, I was slow several years ago to grasp the meaning of the term, but as a blogger I know I paid attention, even before I knew the word, to the number of people who click on posts about particular topics.  I realize, of course, that my purpose is to do justice, not to pay attention to the number of clicks on different subjects, but like all writers who post on-line, I notice.  And I grieve about the paucity of clicks on worthy topics.

As you have, no doubt, heard by now, Betsy DeVos went to the Education Writers Association and asked the nation’s education journalists not to use her as clickbait.  See here, here, here, and here.

DeVos also described her weird philosophy of public education. The last time I remember her channeling Margaret Thatcher was in July of 2017 at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council—the far-right, corporate driven, bill mill that creates the anti-regulatory and pro-privatization model bills that are then broadcast across the 50 state legislatures to be introduced.

I suspect this time, at the Education Writers Association, Betsy DeVos chose a less sympathetic audience.

In her prepared remarks for Monday’s speech, DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, emphasizes freedom from government as the foundation of her strategy. You’ll remember that DeVos is responsible for administering government programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that support K-12 public education across the Unite States. Her department’s Office for Civil Rights is also responsible for investigating reported violations of students’ civil rights in public schools.

DeVos went to the Education Writers Association to explain: “I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families.  Notice that I said, ‘families,’ not government.  It should surprise no one that I am a common-sense conservative with a healthy distrust of centralized government.  Instead, I trust the American people to live their own lives and to decide their own destinies. That’s a freedom philosophy.”

DeVos is not a believer in taxes, and in fact she seems to disbelieve there is any kind of endeavor for which people might agree to share some of their privately earned money for a public purpose. At the Education Writers Association she explained: “I see the term ‘public money.’ And I’m reminded of something another education secretary often said.  Margaret Thatcher said that government ‘has no source of money other than the money people earn themselves.’  There is no such thing as ‘public money,’ The Iron Lady was right.”

DeVos continues, introducing her newest proposal.  She has asked Congress to create Education Freedom Scholarships—a tuition tax credit program to create private school tuition neo-vouchers: “Our proposal allows people to direct money they themselves have earned. They will voluntarily contribute to non-profit organizations that provide scholarships to students. It’s a much more effective and efficient way of getting resources to students who need them the most.” Of course, DeVos leaves out of her remarks that her proposal, if Congress were ever to pass it, would redirect $5 billion a year out of the federal treasury to support parental school choice.

On Monday, DeVos discouraged the education journalists in her audience from carefully exploring the nuances of the various school privatization schemes she promotes.  She said:  “(L)et’s get the terminology right about schools and school choice. Charter schools are public schools. Vouchers are not tax-credits nor are they tax-deductions nor education savings accounts nor 529 accounts. There are many different mechanisms that empower families to choose the education that’s right for their children.  And they are just that: mechanisms.”

She concludes her remarks by presuming to re-define public education itself: “(L)et’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.”

When we think about it, of course, we discover some things missing from Betsy DeVos’s definition. Justice has never been about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as they bind themselves together to form a society. Our society is anchored by the laws to which we have agreed through the democratic process. Today the law guarantees that all students must be admitted in public schools which are required to protect their rights by law and to ensure programming to serve their needs. Historically the law has provided the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we have been able to insist on better services for vulnerable families who were historically left out.  Advocacy for enforcement by law is why California has once again begun providing bilingual education after extremists shut down those programs a quarter century ago and instituted English only. Advocacy for enforcement of the law is what forced states to stop de jure school segregation after 1954. In the past decade, advocacy for enforcement of the law has brought protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.

The National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis describes the history of our traditional understanding of the importance of public schooling: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, ‘Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”

In more technical language in his new book, Education Inequality and School Finance, Rutgers University education economist Bruce Baker confronts DeVos’s confusion about the public purpose of investing public tax dollars : “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choices are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations… Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. These dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (Education Inequality and School Finance, p. 30)

In a 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explores how privatization benefits the powerful and the privileged and exacerbates inequality and oppression: “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)

On Monday, Betsy DeVos asked the education journalists to stop using her as clickbait. But there is no way journalists can stop Betsy DeVos from being clickbait. Her belief system is an utter contradiction to the position she holds.  Today a person who does not believe in government’s role for providing public education heads up the federal government’s department responsible for overseeing the nation’s public schools. And after two years on the job, the U.S. Secretary of Education insists on traveling around the country broadcasting her intention to undermine the very institution for which she is responsible. The irony is so outrageous that everybody pays attention. Every time she speaks, our minds all immediately travel back to high school civics as we try to figure out how she gets it so wrong.

How delightful for me as a blogger.  I can create a serious civics lesson about the public purpose of public education, and, merely by putting our U.S. Secretary of Education’s name in the headline, I can get people to click on it .

Can We Hold onto Our Values As We Struggle to Survive in the Trump-DeVos Holding Pattern?

I was dismayed recently when I sat down to read some excellent proposals for addressing child poverty in the United States.

Here are two alternative proposals from the National Academy of Sciences. Both are prescriptions for cutting our national child poverty rate in half within a decade. Each proposal would combine a different set of policy strategies; each combination of ingredients would achieve the same very laudable result:

  1. “Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit along the phase-in and flat portions; convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to a fully refundable tax credit and concentrate its benefits to families with children with the lowest incomes; increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by 35 percent…; and expand the supply of Section 8 Housing… Vouchers to supply affordable housing for 70 percent of eligible families.””
  2. “Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by 40 percent; convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to a fully refundable tax credit and concentrate its benefits to families with children with the lowest incomes; replace the Child Tax Credit with a monthly child allowance of $225 per month…; establish a new child support assurance program that provides a minimum payment of $100 per month per child; increase the federal minimum wage to $10.25 per hour… and index it to inflation; and restore program eligibility for non-qualified legal immigrants for Medicaid, SNAP… TANF…, SSI, and other benefits.”

I am sure that, if the people at the National Academy of Sciences who wrote the report say so, either of these prescriptions on its own would cut child poverty in half within the decade. My despair when I look at these plans, however, is that today there is an utter absence of national political will to ensure that Congress would move on any one of the specifics, let alone any combination of them.

Nor do I have any hope that even well-informed people on the street could possibly get a handle on what all these programs are and how they would work together to help our children. We need leaders who can help us understand what each of these programs is, how they would fit together, and—most important—why they matter.  And for those of us who care about the future of education, we need to be reminded that child poverty—not failing public schools—is what threatens the future of too many of our children.

Our collective ignorance about what such programs are and how they would help our children is particularly worrisome today, because the best we can look for is to be trapped in a holding pattern right now.  It is dangerous that we are forgetting the very tools that someday may help us address child poverty. We are obligated today merely to be grateful when things are not quickly getting worse.

In the area of K-12 public education—which directly affects 50 million of our children—President Trump’s education budget proposal flat-funds Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These are the huge formula programs that help schools serve children in poverty and children with disabilities. The President’s proposed budget also flat-funds Head Start.  For two years now, Congress has agreed to maintain these programs, and there is some assurance Congress will continue to do so. (House Democrats recently proposed adding $4.4 billion to the FY 2020 federal budget for education, including an increase in Title I, although any House education budget is unlikely to be approved by the Republican-dominated Senate.)  We must find ourselves grateful for the preservation of the status quo, even though all this flat-funding means the programs are falling behind in inflation-adjusted dollars.

On Sunday, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler described today’s holding-pattern in stark terms.  What she portrays is a crisis in leadership and values, not merely a paucity of programs. In a profile about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Meckler assures us that DeVos has emerged as among the few survivors in Trump’s Cabinet: “(‘T)he president shows no signs of asking her to resign, reflecting in part his lack of interest in the issue of education and the department responsible for it… This account of DeVos’s endurance in the Education Department’s top job is based on interviews with eight people with direct knowledge of the secretary’s relationship with the president and with an understanding of the inner workings of the White House and education agency… DeVos has benefited from Trump’s lack of interest in education, officials say… Also bolstering DeVos’s standing: She hasn’t had a single personal scandal. She’s a billionaire and travels by private plane, but she pays for it herself. She donates her salary to charity. Even detractors say that in person, DeVos is pleasant and easy to be around.”

We have a President who doesn’t care about education, and we can extrapolate: a President who doesn’t care about children.  Fortunately Congress has refused to go along with an ideological agenda that features education as an exercise in individual freedom, privatization, and marketplace choice.  We have to be grateful for the holding pattern even as we worry about the plight of poor children.

At the same time those of us concerned about a crisis in urban public schools also know that school achievement is affected by factors in the lives of children outside school. The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel delineate many of the primary challenges for children that threaten their engagement with school: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism… (S)tudents in many… communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

These are, of course, the problems the National Academy of Sciences suggests we can address with either of their prescribed mixtures of policy investments. Nobody in this holding pattern of Trump Times, however, has been able to frame poignantly our public responsibility for addressing the needs of what First Focus identifies as 13 million children living in poverty today in the United States. Good leadership is desperately needed to develop the political will in a society barely coping with an executive branch gone mad.  As the Mueller report and its implications wash over us, at a time when our president foments hatred at the southern border, and in a society driven more and more by individualism and entrepreneurship, can we recover some kind of commitment to the public good and our collective obligation to our society’s children?

Here are some values we ought to be thinking about.

The late Benjamin Barber describes today’s realities for children and their schools—a reality that has grown more serious than it was when he wrote these words in 1998: “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)

John Dewey names the principle that has traditionally grounded our society’s commitment to the well being of our children and their public education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)

Over the past year, there was one public outcry on behalf of children that was loud enough to overcome the inertia of just trying to hold on for two more years.  Thank you teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for your walkouts—state by state and district by district.  You who spend your days in our public schools helped us see the damage being imposed on children by huge classes along with the absence of counselors, school nurses, social workers and librarians. And you reminded citizens in many states that their taxes are needed as a public obligation to support their children and to keep a well-qualified and experienced staff of teachers in the public schools that serve their children.

There was also one simple public protest that may point to a strategy for changing the conversation. Before the 2018 election for governor of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools supplied thousands of parents statewide with very simple yard signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools and I Vote.” Without sinking into the policy weeds, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools very plainly confronted and replaced Scott Walker’s years-long agenda to privatize and otherwise undermine public schools. Perhaps a wave of yard signs helped reframe the agenda: Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, defeated Walker and now serves as Wisconsin’s governor.