Trump VA Tries to End Ethics Law Prohibiting Staff Conflicts of Interest with For-Profit Colleges

While this blog focuses on K-12 public education, the Trump administration has proposed ending a regulation of for-profit, higher education, a proposal that is so outrageous it cannot be ignored.  The Trump administration wants to nullify a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect veterans by ensuring that staff in the Department of Veterans Administration are not being paid or otherwise rewarded by the for-profit colleges that, to stay open, actively recruit students who will pay tuition with GI benefits, federal loans and Pell Grants.

NY Times reporter Patricia Cohen explains: “The proposal to suspend the ethics law was published in the Federal Register in mid-September and is scheduled to take effect on Oct. 16, but no public hearings have been scheduled and no public comments have yet been submitted.”

Here is what the change will mean, explains Aaron Glantz of Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting: “The proposed regulation… would allow employees of the Department of Veterans affairs to receive ‘wages, salary, dividends, profits, gratuities’ and services from for-profit schools that receive GI Bill funds. VA employees would also be allowed to own stock in those colleges, the waiver says, as ‘the Secretary (of Veterans Affairs) has determined that no detriment will result to the United States, veterans or eligible persons from such activities.'”

The NY Times‘ Patricia Cohen quotes Carrie Wofford, director of Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit advocacy group: “There’s no good that can come from allowing colleges to have unseemly financial entanglements with V.A. employees. Congress enacted a zero tolerance for financial conflicts of interest for V.A. employees precisely because Congress uncovered massive fraud by for-profit colleges targeting veterans.”

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss just published a letter sent by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin to protest the Department’s waiving the conflict-of-interest regulation:  “If this proposed change were to go forward, Department employees and state accreditors would be able to be employed by or own stock in the very institutions the Department and State Approving Agencies are charged with regulating… Many for-profit colleges have been found by numerous law enforcement entities and investigative reporting to have preyed on veterans and service members for access to their educational benefits, and have invested heavily in obtaining special access to military bases and populations. Loopholes in federal law have created incentives for many entities in this sector to recruit and enroll veterans as a means of gaining access to other sources of state and federal aid.  Many for-profit colleges have also put substantial resources into lobbying Congress and numerous federal agencies to weaken regulations that would protect student veterans from fraud.  Weakening conflict of interest regulations related to for-profit institutions is not only inadvisable, but will put our men and women in uniform and those who have served our country at further risk of predatory and abusive business practices.”

The effort to waive the conflict of interest regulations in the Department of Veterans Affairs is part of a wider effort by the Trump Administration to roll back rules imposed during the Obama Administration to curtail abuses by the for-profit college sector. The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has also taken steps to weaken rules that protect students from predatory activities by for-profit colleges. Michael Stratford covers these issues for POLITICO.  Here is his summary at the end of August of steps taken by the DeVos Department of Education to undermine Obama-era regulations to protect students from taking loans to study in for-profit colleges whose programs are so weak academically that their graduates are unemployable and unable to pay off the loans they have accrued:

  • “Moved to gut two major Obama-era regulations reviled by the industry that would have cut off funding to low-performing programs and made it easier for defrauded students to wipe out their loans;
  • “Appointed a former for-profit college official, Julian Schmoke Jr., to lead the team charged with policing fraud in higher education—one of a slew of industry insiders installed in key positions. Schmoke is a former dean at DeVry University, whose parent company agreed last year to pay $100 million to resolve allegations the company misled students about their job and salary prospects;
  • “Stopped approving new student-fraud claims brought against for-profit schools. The Education Department has a backlog of more than 65,000 applications from students seeking to have their loans forgiven on the grounds they were defrauded….”

Stratford adds some background to clarify what kind of for-profit programs the Obama Department of Education had been regulating and the current administration is trying to let off the hook: “For-profit colleges, which enrolled nearly 2.5 million students in the past academic year, encompass multistate behemoths such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry, as well as hundreds of small trade schools that struggle to make ends meet. Since a Great Recession boom, the industry has been dogged by allegations of predatory sales techniques and poor outcomes that left tens of thousands of students drowning in debt while the schools raked in billions from federal student loans and grants. President Barack Obama sought to curb those abuses with a regulatory crackdown that the industry blamed for pushing two of its giants, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, into bankruptcy, while others saw their stock prices nosedive and enrollment plummet.”

In her fine book, Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler summarizes the problems for-profit colleges pose for our society: “Ironically, despite being regarded as part of the private sector, the for-profits are financed almost entirely by American taxpayers. They enroll about one in ten college students today, but utilize one in four dollars allocated through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the predominant source of federal student aid.  A 1998 law permitted the for-profits to gain up to 90 percent of their total revenue from this single source.  Other government funds do not count against this threshold, so the for-profits also receive 37 percent of all Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and 50 percent of Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits. In recent years, this combination of public funds has provided the for-profit schools with 86 percent of their total revenue, to the tune of roughly $32 billion annually.” (pp. 2-3)

The Obama Department of Education, to its credit, tried to crack down on abuses by for-profit colleges. The Trump administration is systematically undermining the public interest by rolling back regulations.

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School Finance Expert Attacks Thinking of Betsy DeVos: the Social Contract vs. Individualism

Bruce Baker, the school funding expert at Rutgers University, publishes a regular personal blog that he calls School Finance 101.  Recently he has been posting reflections he calls “School Finance Prerequisites.” These pieces consider principles Baker views as foundational to an understanding of public school finance.  Baker is challenging the thinking of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, a long opponent of public education and a philanthropist who has invested millions of dollars in advocacy organizations like the American Federation of Children and the libertarian think-tank, EdChoice, to promote school choice and her goal of making school funding portable—a publicly provided chit carried by each child to the school chosen by her parents.

In On Liberty vs. Equality, Baker examines a central flaw at the center of the promotion of school privatization: the belief that school choice will lead to educational equity:  “A common refrain among school choice advocates is that expansion of choice through vouchers and charter schooling is ‘the civil rights issue of our time.'” However, “a lengthy literature in political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences which most often operate in tension with one another… Preferences for and expansion of liberties most often leads to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate these divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, winners and losers.”

Baker continues: “(E)xpansion of charter schooling has largely led to expansion of vastly unequal choices.  Some charter schools, operated by politically connected and financially well-endowed management companies are able to provide longer school years, longer days, smaller classes and richer curricula than others. Those same charter schools are the ones most chosen, with the longest waiting lists… (T)he choices are unequal and unequally accessible.  A system of unequal choices is still an unequal system.”

In a companion post, On the Provision of Public Education, Baker considers public vs. private goods and the essential role of taxation to pay for public goods and services. Baker is describing what ought to be some basic lessons of civics: “Governments, established by the people for the people, collect and redistribute tax dollars to provide for the mix of public goods and services desired. Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual…. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”

Why is it so important to re-explain these basic principles of public funding for the public good?  “The necessity to revisit the basic connections between taxation and the provision of public goods comes about partly in response to a frequent argument of (advocates for) school choice… that public tax dollars belong (or at least should belong) to the child, not the institutions… Institutions—especially government institutions—are faceless bureaucracies, thus ‘bad’ whereas children are obviously ‘good.’  That is, even if those institutions are established to serve the children…  (I)ndividual parent preferences for the use of public dollars always supersede societal preferences.”  Baker argues that, “the tax dollars collected belong to… the democratically governed community… that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars… Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools.  The assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt (15 to 20 years) surely do not belong exclusively to parents of currently enrolled children.”

If you have been listening in recent months to speeches delivered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, you may realize that in these recent blog posts, Bruce Baker is explicating what is wrong with the logic in DeVos’s reasoning.  For example, here is what she said in a keynote address at the annual meeting last July of the American Legislative Exchange Council:

“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.”

Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘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.”

Bruce Baker is condemning Margaret Thatcher’s contention—and apparently Betsy DeVos’s belief—that there is no such thing as society—only individuals and families.

In his recent posts, Baker defends the thinking encapsulated by the American Federation of Teachers in its anti-DeVos tweet—that public schools are an essential manifestation of the social contract: “We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”

John Dewey, Paul Wellstone… and Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos has weakened, through rule changes, protection for the victims of campus sexual assault, reduced protections for transgender youths, shortened and made more superficial the investigations of civil rights complaints, and reduced some of Obama’s sanctions against for-profit colleges. There also seem to be changes coming in the administration of student loans. But as far as the operation and funding of K-12 public schools, she hasn’t been able to move major changes through Congress.

I would argue, however, that the most serious damage she is inflicting is her use of her power as Secretary of Education to undermine the philosophy of education most of us have merely assumed was true, because it has always been the explanation we’ve heard as the reason for public schools. Most of us can’t articulate that philosophy because we’ve merely taken it for granted.

Here are two simple statement, by experts, of what most of us just accept. Philosopher John Dewey wrote, “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 late Senator Paul Wellstone made it even simpler: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.”  Leave aside for a moment the fact that these are aspirational goals: Our society has not fulfilled these promises for the most vulnerable children, but we have made some progress over the years expanding the provision of education for the children we’ve left out or left behind simply because we have believed in the broader principles of equal access and opportunity.

Dewey and Wellstone promoted a philosophy of social responsibility. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, promotes a philosophy of individual freedom. It is a very different way of thinking.

In a major policy address in July, here is how Betsy DeVos described her philosophy of education: “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.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘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.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “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.”

As a description of schooling for children, DeVos’s statement makes little sense. She doesn’t explain anything about the operation and funding of school schools—I guess, because she doesn’t believe in any kind of system. DeVos’s statement is merely a declaration of libertarian ideology.  This must be what she meant back in 2015 when she said, “Government really sucks.”

In addition to her words, the venues where DeVos has been speaking about her education philosophy tell us about her philosophy of education.

The speech about Margaret Thatcher was a keynote at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC).  Economist, Gordon Lafer explains that ALEC is “the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level.”  It “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. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.  Ultimately, the ‘exchange’ that ALEC facilitates is between corporate donors and state legislators.  The corporations pay ALEC’s expenses and contribute to legislators’ campaigns; in return, legislators carry the corporate agenda into their statehouses.” (The One Percent Solution, p 13)

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s collaboration with ALEC: “For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization.  That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where… Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)… had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January.  It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.”

Another recent example is the Mackinac Island address DeVos just delivered to the 32nd biannual conference of the Michigan Republican Party.  Here is Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “There’s something really through-the-looking-glass about DeVos addressing a room full of legislators whose campaigns she has funded, lobbyists whose work she has paid for, and activists whose movements she launched.  This is, in a very real way, a room DeVos built, in a state her family has shaped, in a country whose educational policy she now plays a key role in administering… The DeVoses are by no means the only big-money donors, on either side of the political aisle.  But in Michigan, it’s difficult to find a significant state-level policy change the DeVos family hasn’t backed: right-to-work, pension reform, unfettered school choice… DeVos is now in a powerful position to spread her philosophy of unconstrained school choice to the rest of the country.  But Michigan is left to deal with the mess that the charter movement has wrought.”

Finally there is the conference beginning today at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is important to note that the conference is part of Paul Peterson’s right-wing funded think-tank, the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is situated in the Kennedy School; this is not the university’s college of education.  Betsy DeVos is one of the keynoters at this particular conference, which, reports Graham Vyse of the New Republic, is being sponsored primarily by the Charles Koch Foundation and EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The title of the September 28-29 conference transparently identifies its libertarian slant: “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”  Here are some of the presenters beginning, of course, with Paul Peterson, the program’s host: Paul DiPerna (EdChoice), Robert Enlow (EdChoice), Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute), Jason Riley (Wall Street Journal), Betheny Gross (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Robert Pondiscio (Thomas B. Fordham Institute), Macke Raymond (The Center for Research on Education Outcomes and The Hoover Institution), Brian Gill (Mathematica Policy Research), Chris Cerf (New Jersey Department of Education and formerly of Joel Klein’s operation running the NYC schools), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). Not surprisingly, as Vyse points out, on this conference’s agenda there are no presenters who are critics of school choice.

We are hearing a lot these day from the far, far right when it comes to education and much less from those who believe that public education is part of our nation’s historical commitment to social responsibility. It is worth contemplating seriously the rest of Senator Paul Wellstone’s definition of our society’s obligation to do much better for our most vulnerable children. Here is what he said in March, 2000 in an address at a very different kind of venue— Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

In Michigan, Out-of-Control Charter Sector Diminishes Equitable Access to Quality Education

Buried in news about the hurricanes, several in-depth articles have explored the emergence, growth and impact of school privatization. There has also been fine reporting on the retreat from school integration and multicultural studies in public schools.  This blog’s four posts this week will highlight important reports that trace how public policy in education has been playing out over time in Detroit and Highland Park, Michigan; in St. Louis, Missouri; in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama; and in Tucson, Arizona.

Watching her Congressional confirmation hearing, one could sense that Michigan’s Betsy DeVos is unsuitable for the position she now holds as Secretary of Education, but for those willing to learn how absolutely unfit she is to lead the federal department that administers federal policy for the nation’s public schools, Mark Binelli’s NY Times Magazine profile of school privatization in Michigan will provide the details.

In Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost, Binelli traces the history of Michigan’s venture into school privatization—the primary players and the intellectual foundation for the movement as it was articulated by the Mackinac Center: “Over the last 30 years, the Mackinac Center, which was founded in 1987 by, among others, John Engler, a Republican state senator, has become a model for state-level conservative policy shops around the country. When Engler was elected governor in 1990, the intellectual foundation of his signature policy issue—education reform—came via a Mackinac Center white paper that pushed school choice as a means of breaking up the ‘bureaucratic monopoly’ of a public-education system smothering risk-taking and entrepreneurial moxie.  The author of the study, Lawrence W. Reed—then the center’s president—argued that it was time ‘to put our faith in the virtues that made America great in all areas where they have been tried: competition, private initiative, and, of course, consumer choice.’  He cited private-school vouchers as a possible model and also gave a nod to an experiment taking place in Minnesota, where they were testing ‘independently run public schools, known as ‘chartered schools.’… Betsy DeVos, a wealthy, deeply religious conservative willing to spend millions of dollars lobbying for a radical redefinition of public education, and her husband, Dick, the heir to the Amway fortune, provided significant financial backing to the Mackinac Center, as well as to pro-charter lobbying groups like Teach Michigan and their own Great Lakes Education Project.”

As governor, John Engler passed a 1994 ballot initiative that was sold as a way to equalize school funding. It would make all districts depend equally on a state per-pupil distribution of sales taxes, though legislators from Detroit’s wealthy suburbs, of course, ensured that school districts could still add local contributions to supplement the state allotment.  When Michigan’s economy sagged and wealthy districts continued to supplement their own budgets with local taxes, the chasm between wealthy and poor districts deepened. Privatization was sold as the remedy.

Binelli covers a maelstrom of problems spinning together— inequality, racial segregation, the economic collapse of Michigan’s poorest cities, deregulation, and the ideological attack on government itself: “Charters continue to be sold in Michigan as a means of unwinding the inequality of a public-school system in which districts across the state, overwhelmingly African-American—Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, Flint—grapple with steep population declines, towering financial obligations, de-industrialization and the legacy of segregation.  By allowing experimentation, proponents argue, and by breaking the power of teachers’ unions, districts will somehow be able to innovate their way past the crushing underfunding that afflicts majority-minority school districts all around the country.” “Today, all but seven states have some version of a charter law, though few have adopted a model as extreme as Michigan’s. Twenty-one states have a charter cap, 31 require charters to submit annual reports and 33 have statewide authorizing bodies. Michigan, abiding by none of those rules, has allowed 80 percent of its own charters to be operated by for-profit EMOs (Education Management Organizations).  Only 16 percent of charters nationwide are run by for-profit companies.”

Throughout his analysis, Binelli threads the story of Carver Academy, a charter school in Highland Park, a Detroit-area school district turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager in 2012 to the Leona Group, a for-profit EMO: “The state’s solution that year was to ‘charterize’ the entire district: void the teacher’s union contract, fire all employees, and turn control of the schools to a private, for-profit charter operator. But enrollment at Highland Park High (School) continued to decline, so the state closed the school in 2015. Highland Park now has no high school, either public or charter.” (Filling in an important detail, Wikipedia reports that Carver Academy, the school Binelli profiles, left the Leona Group in 2016 and found another authorizer, Bay Mills Community College.)

One of the enormous problems Binelli profiles is Michigan’s problem with myriad, unaccountable charter school authorizers: “Perhaps the most startling feature of Michigan’s system is its lack of centralized oversight. In most of the country, state governments play some role in determining who can open charter schools and monitor their progress. But Engler ceded nearly all control to dozens of groups throughout Michigan—universities and community colleges, as well as existing public school districts.” Highland Park’s George Washington Carver Academy, a PreK-8 charter school that Binelli profiles in depth, is authorized by the Bay Mills Community College (B.M.C.C.), “owned and operated by the Bay Mills Indian Community, an Ojibwa tribe with over 2,000 members and 5.5 square miles of reservation land” along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “In 2003, the tribe started its own K-8 charter, which would offer classes devoted to Ojibwa language and culture. In addition to serving as authorizer for the tribal school, Bay Mills Community College began authorizing other schools around the state. Today, with 42 schools in locations as far-flung as Flint, Benton Harbor and Detroit, B.M.C.C. is the third-largest charter authorizer in Michigan.”

Binelli takes us to the meeting of the review panel where a committee at Bay Mills Community College evaluates several charter schools under its sponsorship—their financial and academic performance—to determine their future.  Bay Mills Community College’s president, Mickey Parish chairs the meeting. Later Parish explains privately to Binelli that there is little incentive for B.M.C.C. ever to close a school: “After the meeting, when I spoke with Parish alone, he acknowledged that the 3 percent fee (paid to authorizers by the state), beyond covering charter-office expenses, ‘does provide a little bit of extra money to help our college activities.'”

Carver Academy is, however, being more carefully investigated, by Oak Ridge Financial, a business that makes its profits by working with Michigan’s financially fragile charters. When Sylvia Brown recently became became Carver’s school principal, not only did she take over the responsibility for improving the academic achievement of Carver’s students, but she also faced the need to keep the school going despite its heavy debt load, which she sought to refinance: “When Brown took over at Carver Academy, one of the many problems she inherited was enormous real estate debt. The problem is not uncommon: Michigan does not mandate that its charter schools buy or lease property at fair-market prices, resulting—predictably—in wildly inflated real estate spending. In Carver’s case, the situation was especially frustrating because the debt was a legacy from yet another for-profit entity… It contracted (in 2000) with a for-profit EMO called Mosaica Education. After only a year of operation, Carver, still run by Mosaica, signed a mortgage agreement to buy and upgrade the school property for $7.1 million—the loan Brown found herself facing 17 years later.” The refinancing partnership with Oak Ridge Financial eventually falls apart, and Brown faces the need to shop around for another financial partner. Binelli describes the financial analysis of Carver Academy’s problems by Scott VanderWerp, who runs Oak Ridge Financial: “Carver’s debt made no sense to VanderWerp: $6.5 million of debt on a building that’s surrounded by public-housing complexes, in a place where 49 percent of people live under the poverty rate. ‘The crime rates are high, there are vacant buildings everywhere… I think you’d readily agree that the building and land isn’t worth $5 or $6 million. Quite candidly, it’s probably worth $500,000 or $600,000.’  He said charters often entered bad deals because authorizers and school boards, which must approve loans, lacked a basic understanding of bond finance.” Binelli adds, describing another serious charter school real estate problem, in many cases charter school management companies themselves acquire buildings, remodel them cheaply as school facilities, and then charge outrageous rents to the very schools they themselves manage, a clear conflict of interest.

Please read Mark Binelli’s fine report: Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost. It is impossible adequately to summarize Binelli’s nuanced analysis of the public crisis that has derived from Michigan’s ideologically driven experiment with privatization. Due to the school district’s size and the sheer number of charter schools, Detroit has become the epicenter of Michigan’s charter school problem. Binelli explains: “Last year, State Senator Geoff Hansen, a Republican from the tiny city of Hart, tried to rein things in. Setting his sights on Detroit, Hansen sponsored a bipartisan bill that would have increased oversight of charters in the city, creating a seven-member Detroit Education Commission with mayoral appointees and a mandate to determine where new charter schools could open and whether existing schools would expand or be closed. The bill passed the Senate with the support of Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, and Detroit’s Democratic mayor, Mike Duggan, but it was derailed in the 11th hour by Republicans in the… (House)—thanks in large part, to the lobbying efforts of the DeVos family, which, The Detroit Free Press reports, showered the state Republican Party with ‘near-unprecedented amounts of money’ during the campaign cycle.”

Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

Here are words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Busy working, maintaining house and yard, swimming in an ocean of information in our media-driven, consumer society, most of us aren’t, perhaps, likely to spend a lot of time considering these principles, but it would certainly be wonderful if the officials we have chosen as our leaders were to demonstrate that, for them, at least, these truths are self-evident.

After all, we’ve spent two and a half centuries making some progress by ensuring that our laws protect more than just the rights of men. And we have defined more precisely the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These struggles for redefinition have very often centered in the public schools—the right for the descendants of slaves to educational equality, the right for American Indian children to attend schools that reflect their indigenous cultures—the right for immigrant children to instruction in English and for the undocumented, the right to a K-12 public school education—the right of LGBT students to be safe, respected and understood.

Now it seems that our leaders have stepped back—even that they are willing to lead us backward.  For President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, what does not seem self-evident is “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  The most blatant recent example is Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Abusing his position as a public official, Arpaio ran his department without concern for the rights of  the Hispanic residents of Phoenix—in flagrant violation of the rule of law. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. But the President, unfazed by the nature of Arpaio’s crime, called Arpaio a good man.  Here is the Washington Post: “(T)he White House’s official statement lauding Mr. Arpaio failed to mention the charge for which Mr. Trump had granted clemency: a criminal conviction of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling… Despite Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Arpaio was ‘convicted for doing his job,’ a federal judge found the former sheriff guilty of contempt when he refused to cease rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants on the basis of appearance alone. But Mr. Arpaio’s abuse of his authority as sheriff went well beyond racial profiling. With pride, he detained inmates in inhumane conditions and humiliated them in the name of deterring crime.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, like Trump, seems unclear that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  In a keynote address earlier this summer, she wondered: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families—and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” She added: “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.” Demonstrating her unconcern for the government’s role in operating a  system of education to protect students’ rights, DeVos has begun limiting investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to the details of formal complaints as filed, without examining the three years of previous evidence to look for systemic violations. Her department has also wrapped up a large backlog of civil rights complaints without findings in most cases.

Trump and DeVos freely disparage the institution of public education—with DeVos persistently extolling privatized charter schools and various private school tuition voucher schemes.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the damage being inflicted by Trump and DeVos on the very government institution for which they are responsible. After Trump once again disdained, at a recent Phoenix, Arizona event, “the failures of our public schools,” Strauss wrote: “But the larger effect of Trump’s remark is not that it is wrong but rather that it is part of a pattern of his — and of DeVos’s — to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems…Such sentiments by Trump and DeVos, consistently expressed publicly, reinforce the myth that traditional public education is broadly failing students and that the answer is using public money for privately run and/or owned schools.”

Last week, in Losing Our Purpose, Measuring the Wrong Things, William Mathis, Vice-Chairman of the Vermont Board of Education and Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, considered what ought to be self-evident to all of us in an era when our leaders seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of public education.  Mathis traces our problems not just to Trump and DeVos, but also to the test-and-punish accountability agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations: “By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap — but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.”

Mathis calls us all to remember the purposes of public education: “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.”

Society has struggled, however, to ensure justice and realize the promise of our public schools: “But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand schools solve these problems… No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.”

Here is Bill Mathis’s challenge for the future of public education: “If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good…  We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.”

How Will the DeVos Department of Education Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Between 2002 and the end of 2015, many who care about U.S. public education lived and breathed strategies for ending No Child Left Behind’s rigid and punitive accountability mechanisms. The law was supposed to make all public schools accountable for improving schooling, especially for children in poverty and children in racial and ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized. NCLB was supposed to ensure that every child in America would be proficient by 2014. Its strategy was using fear as the motivator—driving everybody to work harder to avoid terrible sanctions like teachers being fired, schools being closed, and schools being turned over to private operators.

But, although teachers were fired, and schools were closed, and schools were turned over to private contractors, test scores did not rise appreciably and achievement gaps did not close.  And, because test scores in the aggregate reflect family and community economic levels, the schools that were closed or privatized were too often in the big city neighborhoods the law was supposed to help and the teachers who were fired were too frequently black and brown teachers living and teaching in those cities.

So… when Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a newer version of the federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, many people hoped for more support for the poorest schools in America’s big cities.  And supporters of public school improvement were not sorry that the Republicans who dominated Congress in December 2015 seemed to want to soften the “punish” part of test-and-punish. The testing part, unfortunately, remains: once every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  But the punish part was turned over to the states, who were told they must set goals for improving test scores and find ways to reach those goals.  It was all pretty vague—and lots of people worried that what it really meant was a return to states’ rights.  That worry paled, however, compared to a widespread consensus that it is impossible to punish schools into raising test scores.

Then a year later Betsy DeVos, the devoted privatizer and strong supporter of less regulation of education, arrived to lead the U.S. Department of Education. People began watching as, in the spring of this year, states began submitting their required ESSA plans—their goals for raising test scores and their strategies to push schools to reach those goals. Everybody was shocked in early July when DeVos, the de-regulator, allowed her department to demand that Delaware make its plan tougher on accountability. Here is Erica Green of the NY Times:  “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.”

Green describes Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pushing back at the Republican Secretary of Education: “Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos…. But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility.”

It turns out that the person at the Department of Education who has been reviewing states’ ESSA plans is Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary of education. (His appointment has not yet come before the Senate.) Botel is a longtime corporate school reformer whose background includes stints at KIPP charter schools and Maryland’s chapter of 50CAN, an advocacy organization supportive of strong accountability for public schools. Erica Green quotes Botel advocating for a strict interpretation of the wording of ESSA, which spells out that states’ plans must be ambitious: “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”

Senator Alexander responded: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully… The heart of the entire law… was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.” (What this means is a little unclear, as in the past test-and-punish was defined as “helping” schools that aren’t performing well.)

On Monday morning of this week, the Department of Education, in a notice published in the Federal Register, answered Senator Alexander’s concerns—clarifying what sort of evidence it will require from states to ensure their accountability plans are ambitious.  Here is Sarah Sparks of Education Week explaining how the Department will interpret the rules: “For the most part, the rules tweak or clarify existing rules to incorporate ESSA’s four increasingly rigorous levels of evidence: …To use an intervention or approach for school improvement under ESSA, it must be backed by research that is strong (experimental trials), moderate (quasi-experimental), or by promising studies that don’t meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. For topics aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study.”

Also this week, Betsy DeVos signed off on the ESSA plan Delaware had presented and Botel had rejected, though the state tweaked the application a bit to satisfy the Department. Alyson Klein summarizes for Education Week: “Delaware made some tweaks to its plan, and clarified some things for the department. The state gave some more information to show why its goal of cutting the number of students who don’t score proficient on state tests in half by 2030 is, indeed, ambitious.  And it explained that all public high school students do, in fact, have access to the courses, tests, and other measures the state wants to use to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Delaware also moved science test scores to another part of its accountability system, at the behest of the feds… Apparently, all that was good enough to convince DeVos—who has final say over giving a state plan the thumbs up or down—to approve Delaware’s ESSA vision.”

What seems clear is that ESSA enforcement is not Betsy DeVos’s top priority. It also seems that the Department, under DeVos’s leadership, is not going to make waves with powerful Congressional Republicans like Lamar Alexander.

It is also clear that federally driven, test-based school accountability is not going away. One can only hope that academic researchers and the Department of Education will watch carefully to see if any of the evidence-based strategies states impose under ESSA as the response to low test scores do begin to deliver real improvement in our nation’s struggling schools.

My prediction is that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement. Across the states schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA.  And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the  Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

Betsy DeVos: So How’s She Doing?

Six months in, several writers have set out to remind us who Betsy DeVos is and to consider where the U.S. Department of Education stands under her leadership.

Writing in the U.K. for The Guardian, David Smith recalls: “(I)t is DeVos, America’s 11th education secretary, who is viewed by many… as its most dangerous and destructive since the post was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979. DeVos, a devout Christian, stands accused of quietly privatising schools, rescinding discrimination guidelines and neutering her own civil rights office… DeVos—who once called traditional public school districts a ‘dead end’—is accused of defunding and destabilising public education in Michigan by bankrolling school choice initiatives.  Now… she is trying to apply the same ideas to the nation, championing privately run, publicly funded charter schools and voucher programmes that enable families to take tax dollars from the public education system to the private sector.”

And, in a sparkling New York Magazine profile, Lisa Miller sums up the impact of Betsy DeVos and her family—longtime far-right activists and philanthropists behind right-wing causes. First there is the family’s role in Michigan education politics: “Detroit now has a greater percentage of kids in charters than any city in the country except New Orleans. Eighty percent of those charters are for-profit. The number of charter schools is growing while the number of students in Detroit continues to shrink, so schools pursue kids like retailers on sale days, with radio ads and flyers and promises of high-end gifts. Still, only 10 percent of Detroit’s graduating seniors are reading at a college level, and the charter schools perform better than or as well as the district schools only about half the time.  When last summer a bipartisan group of concerned Detroiters tried to introduce some accountability and performance standards to the system, GLEP stepped in and killed the measure.” GLEP is the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-privatization lobbying group founded and funded by Betsy and Dick DeVos.

Miller neatly captures who Betsy DeVos is: “Trump has hired other oligarchs to run his federal agencies, and he has staffed the Executive branch with people who, like DeVos, might have been called ‘lobbyists’ in former lives. But DeVos is a hybrid of the two.  Fortified by great wealth and strong religion in the shelter of a monochromatic community, she has throughout her life single-mindedly used that wealth to advance her educational agenda… She was raised to believe she knew exactly what was right.  And for decades, this certainty has propelled her ever forward, always with her singular goal in mind. But what’s right in the bubble in which she has always lived doesn’t translate on YouTube, or in Cabinet meetings, or on the battlefield of public schools, where stakeholders have been waging vengeful politics for years. This is what those advocates who had admired the zeal she brought to their cause didn’t have the foresight to grasp. Out of Michigan, without her checkbook, DeVos is like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”  Miller writes that Betsy DeVos’s long-time friends and allies—Campbell Brown, Jeb Bush, Eva Moskowitz—“have gone quiet, evading the opportunity to offer further praise.”

Examining DeVos’s record earlier this month, this blog concluded that DeVos has accomplished far less than everyone feared, although there is cause for concern that DeVos is quietly neutralizing the department’s Office of Civil Rights and delaying rules to protect college students who have taken out loans to attend unscrupulous for-profit colleges. But as far as privatization of  K-12 school education goes? Not much progress. Reporters who cover these issues in-depth seem to agree with this assessment.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s top reporter following federal policy describes a federal department that has struggled since DeVos took over: “(M)any in the education community were terrified the billionaire school choice advocate would quickly use her new perch to privatize education and run roughshod over traditional public schools. Maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so worried. Nearly six months into her new job, a politically hamstrung DeVos is having a tough time getting her agenda off the ground.”

Klein notes that a House budget bill neglects to fund the very dangerous idea of making Title I portable, a hot issue ultimately rejected by Congress when the federal education law was reauthorized in 2015: “Earlier this month, the House panel charged with overseeing education funding snubbed DeVos’s most important asks so far: using an education research program to push school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.”

And, Klein reports, “DeVos may not have better luck on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education chairman said.  ‘Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers… I think school choice advocates, and I’m one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community-by-community than in Washington  I think it’s more difficult here.'”

What about tuition tax credits, the other form of vouchers DeVos has extolled?  Klein explains: “The Trump administration has also hinted that it will pitch a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan, which could be attached to a broader effort at overhauling the tax code, has yet to be rolled out. And time is running short to get it over the finish line this year… One potential stumbling block to getting a tax credit initiative off the runway: There aren’t yet enough top-level political appointees at the agency to think through the policy and sell it on Capitol Hill. DeVos remains the only official at the department who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”

Michael Stratford at POLITICO describes the staffing delay: “EDUCATION DEPARTMENT HIRING HITS A WALL: The task of staffing the Education Department with fresh political faces appears to have hit a wall. Dozens of individuals have dropped out, frustrated by the drawn-out, rigorous hiring process. Those in the pipeline are wondering what’s taking so long. And fewer folks are throwing their hats in the ring, doubting whether the Trump administration’s pledge to dramatically expand private school choice options for working class families will ultimately go anywhere… A lack of senior political hires has failed to attract other talent, compounding the problem…. And the political hires now at the Education Department have way too much on their plate. President Donald Trump has only formally nominated two individuals for politically appointed, Senate-confirmable positions…”

Stratford draws this conclusion: “Amid the chaos, the Hill doesn’t seem interested in funding the president’s school choice budget proposals and it’s unclear if the White House will get behind a plan to expand private school choice through tax reform—a huge lift for Congress and the administration.  Folks who support private school choice are ‘increasingly pessimistic’… (a) source said. ‘There still seems to be people in the pipeline that could get through. But it seems like no one new is getting in line.'”

Does this mean that advocates for strengthening the public schools can let up?  Not at all.  As long as Betsy DeVos remains unpopular with the public and with members of Congress, it will be harder for her to undermine public education. It is our job to continue—relentlessly—to define the importance of the public schools, which are required by law to serve all children, meet their particular needs, and protect their rights. We must also take Sen. Lamar Alexander’s observation seriously: vouchers and tuition tax credits have had more success in state legislatures than in Congress. ALEC model laws are being introduced in statehouses across the country and must be carefully tracked and opposed.