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.