Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It: Catering to the Desires of Individuals Won’t Serve the Common Good

Betsy DeVos is a libertarian. One cannot drill this concept often enough. DeVos believes in the freedom of individuals to make the choices that benefit themselves and their children. It is the kind of thinking that promotes the rights of individuals above all else. Wikipedia’s definition of libertarianism perfectly describes the thinking of Betsy DeVos: “Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, individual judgment, and self-ownership.”  Libertarians don’t believe government should interfere with individual liberty.

The other day, Betsy DeVos made people in the audience mad when she addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (We’ll ignore for a minute the fact that charter schools are, as a form of private contracting, not really public schools.), because she didn’t seem fully to endorse charter schooling. Here is what she said: “Charter schools are here to stay… But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter… school works for them… I suggest we focus less on what word comes before ‘school,’ whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed… and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve… We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.”  She also emphasized “the parents’ right to decide.”

She also criticized the bureaucracy and red tape that she believes are hampering charter schools, a critique meaning that DeVos rejects the role of government to protect our society through regulation. For DeVos, government regulation is the enemy, which is why the Great Lakes Education Project—the Michigan lobbying organization founded and funded by DeVos and her family—strong-armed the Michigan legislature to defeat the plan for a Detroit Education Commission to bring Detroit’s out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector under some oversight and to ensure that schools open in neighborhoods that need schools instead of neighborhoods with an oversupply of schools.

Betsy DeVos’s libertarianism allows her to ignore the concept of opportunity cost in education. She worries about liberty and freedom for each particular parent and child, but the mechanics of how we’ll pay for all this elude her. Economists call it “opportunity cost” when, because the budget is fixed, we have to  choose what we can afford. If we choose one kind of publicly funded school, we can’t also fund private alternatives unless we increase the budget. Opportunity cost in education is obvious to parents of children in public schools whose classes are getting larger, for example. Our problem is threefold, but Betsy DeVos doesn’t notice: (1) the overall federal budget for education has declined due to austerity budgeting and the sequester, (2) state budgets, a primary source of education funding, have fallen in nearly half the states since the 2008 recession, and (3) we have at the same time added publicly funded, privatized alternatives—charter schools and vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Hence, we’ve lost the opportunity to spend as much on the public schools—which continue to educate 90 percent of our society’s children.

There are a mass of other negative spillover costs for society as a whole from school privatization—problems Betsy DeVos chooses not to see because she worries about individuals, not institutions. We judge the privatized educational alternatives by test scores (the mis-measure our society uses exclusively these days to evaluate schools), but even in cases where students’ test scores rise  and we brag about the “successful” privatized alternatives, we know there is other negative collateral damage from the privatization. Bruce Baker and Gordon Lafer have documented that in big city school districts, when the number of charters is rapidly expanded—particularly when charter operators choose the neighborhoods where they want to open schools—the charter sector operates as a parasite on the host public school district. After charters drain neighborhood public schools of children as parents are lured by charter school advertising, some public schools empty out and are closed. As the process proceeds, there is nowhere for children to return if the charter school proves academically deficient or is later closed.  The neighborhood has at the same time lost the public schools as institutional anchors. When students leave for privatized alternatives, there are also stranded costs for the public schools, stranded costs for building staff, facilities, and transportation that cannot be recouped. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to serve all children. Private schools  accepting vouchers are able to pick and choose the students they accept, and privatized charter schools can push out students with behavior problems or low test scores. Charters and schools accepting vouchers are rarely staffed to serve severely handicapped children and English language learners, the children who require the expensive services the public system must continue to provide. And the federal civil rights laws that protect the rights of such children can be ignored by private schools.

In contrast to DeVos’s libertarian worldview, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson consider education a social and civic project, something that can’t  be shopped for by individuals in a competitive marketplace: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)

In a column published this week, Arthur Camins, a lifelong public school and college educator, explains that we cannot counter Betsy DeVos’s libertarian philosophy of education simply by reciting these arguments about the ways privatization does not work. It is the philosophy of individualism itself that must be rejected: “It is time to care about the education of other people’s children. Other people’s children are or will be our neighbors. Other people’s children—from almost anywhere in the United States and beyond—could end up as our co-workers. Other people’s children are tomorrow’s potential voters. How, what and with whom they learn impacts us all. That is why we have public schools, paid for with pooled taxes. They are designed to serve the public good—not just to suit individual parents’ desires… I refuse to accept the ethos of selfishness and winning in a world of ruthless competition.  Education policy focused on the educational choices of individual parents is not just morally repugnant but stupid and shortsighted.  Does anyone really think that giving every parent the right to choose which school to send their children to is a recipe for raising the next generation of knowledgeable, capable, caring Americans?”

Camins condemns not only the kind of individualism Betsy DeVos promotes but also our broader political climate for tolerating inequality of opportunity across American school districts, educational inequality that grows from our society’s economic inequality: “Of course, some schools do a better job than others…. (T)he big differentials in education outcomes are the result of political decisions about local, state and federal policy and funding. More significant, they are the result of our country’s refusal to do anything substantive about the residential segregation and distrust that continually enable, perpetuate, and exacerbate inequity. The differences are the result of growing inequality, concentrated poverty, and the purposeful oblivion of those who live comfortably stable, if insulated lives. The differences are the result of an intentional political campaign to convince folks in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum—whose lives are hardly easy or secure—to blame other people who struggle even more, rather than the wealthy 1% who wield the levers of economic and political power.”

None of the world’s major religions has an ethical system based on the prowess of the individual and the survival of the fittest. Ethics is always about the way we conduct our relationships with other people in community. Here is the way a Christian, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman defines the concept of justice in a civic institution like our public school system: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”

After Acrimonious Standoff, One State Legislature Rejects DeVos-ALEC School Privatization Scheme

Unless you are a parent or a taxpayer in Nevada, you will probably conclude that this blog post doesn’t relate to you. But the defeat of Nevada’s ALEC-driven plan for Education Savings Account vouchers is directly relevant to you. Education Savings Accounts are among the most extreme of the school voucher schemes being promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose education priorities will, most likely, have to been enacted at the state level. On Sunday night, Nevada’s legislature defeated this plan after a two-year battle. This subject matters to you because your state could soon be considering such a program.

Here is a bit of background from the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown, writing in June of 2015: “In January (2015), Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”  “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” The only qualification was that the child must have attended a public school for 100 days.

Last September, after the Nevada Supreme Court found the funding for the Education Savings Accounts unconstitutional, the program was put on hold. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and co-counsel in the case that found the funding for this program unconstitutional, provides a quick summary of what happened to this program after the ruling of Nevada’s state supreme court, as Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval tried to resurrect the ALEC-driven, Education Savings Account voucher program:

“Gov. Brian Sandoval is pressing lawmakers to revive the private school voucher program blocked last September by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court ruled the program was unconstitutional because it would deplete funds earmarked by the Legislature to operate Nevada’s public schools. The governor’s bill, SB 506, carries forward most features of the prior law. Sandoval wants the per-pupil amount spent on public school students, roughly $5,700, to be deposited into education savings accounts to subsidize private and religious school tuition and pay for other private education expenses. The governor also wants vouchers for any household, even the wealthy… To get around the Supreme Court ruling, SB 506 changes the way vouchers are funded. The funding will not come directly out of public school budgets. Instead, Sandoval proposes a separate appropriation of $60 million over the biennium. At that level, approximately 2,500 vouchers can be awarded each year, not enough for everyone who signed up under the prior law. So the vouchers will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.”

One more bit of background: what are Education Savings Account vouchers?  These programs give parents the amount of money the state would otherwise have spent to educate a child. The parents give up their right to a public education and can instead use the money for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring, test prep, homeschooling curriculum, therapeutic services, transportation and other educational expenses. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has developed a model bill that can be introduced in any state legislature. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee currently have Education Savings Accounts.

One problem for Governor Sandoval and SB 506 is that last November, voters threw out Republican domination of Nevada’s legislature and elected Democratic majorities in both houses. The fight about Education Savings Accounts developed in recent weeks into a power struggle between Governor Sandoval and the legislature, a fight that threatened to derail the state budget. On Sunday, the legislature blocked Sandoval and refused to pass the SB 506 Education Savings Account program.

A deal was struck by which the Legislature made a one-time grant to a smaller voucher program but defeated the Governor’s bill for Education Savings Accounts. Arianna Prothero explains for Education Week: “An effort to fund Nevada’s ambitious program to give all public school students the option to take state money allocated to them and use it instead for private school tuition, or other approved education-related expenses, is dead for this session. It’s unclear what this means for the future of the program, as the Nevada legislature only meets once every two years.” The legislature concluded its current session on Monday with the passage of the state budget. Prothero adds: “However, the deal does contain an extra $20 million over the next two years for a separate private school choice program that has a cap on how much a family can earn in order to be eligible for the aid. That will be paid for by taxing marijuana sales and growers….”

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra celebrates the defeat of the enormous Education Savings Account program by Nevada’s legislature: “The voucher defeat in Nevada is a resounding repudiation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s privatization agenda. Parents and taxpayers want investment in their public schools, not vouchers paid for with taxpayer dollars.  Nevada also shows that when parents, civil rights groups and taxpayers come together, they can succeed in keeping public funding in public schools.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Mathis Reflects on Trump’s Education Budget: A Paradise Lost?

Bill Mathis understands public education from his experience as an award winning local school superintendent, a member of a state board of education and an academic expert on education policy. Bill is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year. He currently serves on the Vermont State Board of Education and chairs the legislative committee.

Mathis condemns President Donald Trump’s miserly 2018 federal education budget that undermines our nation’s principles: “In 1965, the federal government, driven by the obligation to provide equal opportunities to the least fortunate of our citizens, passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  It was intended to lift the nation by strengthening our poorest children and schools, improving the quality of teaching, opening the doors of higher education, and providing skills to adults…  And the emphasis was on building the common good.  By widely investing in our citizens, we invest in the health of our society. Those principles have found no refuge in the work of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos; all that remains of these great purposes is a confusion of empty words….”

Mathis has given me permission to print his reflection on the meaning of the President’s federal budget proposal, released last week.

Bill Mathis

Trump’s Education Budget: A Paradise Lost?

“But all was false and hollow; though his tongue Dropp’d manna and could make the worse appear the better reason.     — John Milton, Paradise Lost, II.I.112

We had a vision of a more perfect nation where democracy and equality were more than aspirations. We believed we could make this piece of paradise real with the unity of the people and the purposefulness of our governments. But this has been reduced to an endless series of false and hollow incantations whose life-span is as transient as its denial in the next morning’s news cycle.

In 1965, the federal government, driven by the obligation to provide equal opportunities to the least fortunate of our citizens, passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was intended to lift the nation by strengthening our poorest children and schools, improving the quality of teaching, opening the doors of higher education, and providing skills to adults. It embraced the ideal voiced by the late President Kennedy that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” And the emphasis was on building the common good. By widely investing in our citizens, we invest in the health of our society and economy.

Those principles have found no refuge in the work of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos; all that remains of these great purposes is a confusion of empty words made to appear as if the worst were the better. Larded with phrases like “commitment to improving education” and “maintaining support for the nation’s most vulnerable students,” Trump proposes to slash federal education programs by $9.2 billion dollars, or 13.5%. This is on top of past unmet needs, since federal obligations to poor and special education children have never been fully met. Starved programs are now set to have their rations reduced or cut entirely.

With a remarkable lack of compassion, the Special Olympics budget was zeroed. Twenty-two programs are eliminated including community learning centers, arts, pre-school and teacher improvement.

Blind to clear evidence that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education returns eight dollars in positive social outcomes such as reduced unemployment, stable families, less incarceration and the like, the Trump budget treats this wise and productive investment as another area to defund: Head Start and childcare are slotted for small reductions, while preschool development grants are entirely eliminated.

It doesn’t get any easier for poor and middle-class students as they get older. Loan forgiveness programs for new college graduates working in schools or government would be eliminated. Student loan interest would be increased. In Trump’s plan, 300,000 students would lose their work-study jobs.  In all, $143 billion would be removed over ten years.

Why make these cuts? The proposal calls for an increase in defense spending of more than $50 billion (a 10% increase) plus tax cuts for the wealthy – and that money has to come from somewhere. By these deeds, a capacity for war is valued more than the needs of the citizenry.

Yet, Trump says “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” This budget raises questions about whether his true objective is to cut civil rights. The proposal’s centerpiece is school choice. The budget seeks to funnel $1.4 billion, in new as well as repurposed funds, into private schools. The “civil rights” framing is stunning doubletalk, since a growing body of independent research shows that school choice segregates students by race, handicap and socioeconomic level.

While there are well-funded partisans who claim that school choice results in better education, an objective look at the data says otherwise. Four recent major studies have examined test-score outcomes for voucher students—in DC, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana—and all four studies show these students doing worse than if they had stayed in public school. The results for charter schools don’t look good enough to justify the rhetoric. Charter schools and public schools perform about the same in terms of test-score outcomes, with poor schools and exceptional schools being distributed among both sectors. In short, school choice is not a way to increase achievement or equality.

At all levels, the the federal government’s long-standing commitment to tackling inequality is left behind. Instead the budget addresses these concerns by reducing services and by growing a competitive choice system that pits schools and families against each other. In this jarring half-light of contradictions, the worst is claimed to be the better.

The election promises still resonate. Manufacturing was to be restored, the little guy would be taken care of, and the dispossessed would have a champion to restore an imagined great Utopia. Instead, it is a coarsened, contradictory and conflicted selfishness, which lessens the common good. It promises manna but takes from the needy to give to the rich. It is far more dangerous than an education appropriation. Its values threaten our democratic society. Instead of a paradise regained, it is a paradise lost.

William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center and vice-chair of The Vermont State Board of Education. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any group with which he is affiliated.             

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)