I am not one for complimenting U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but you have to give her credit for one virtue: she is not an opportunist. She remains a dogged school choice fanatic even though for three years now, she has been unable to get Congress to fund her highest priority, her Education Freedom Scholarship neovoucher-tuition tax credit program.
This year she launched her beginning-of-school-year tour at a Lutheran school in Milwaukee, home of the oldest school voucher program in the country. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the start of DeVos’s September tour: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began her 2019 back-to-school tour Monday. Given that she runs a publicly funded department and that most U.S. students attend schools in traditional public systems, you might think she would go to one in a district working hard to improve its academic performance. Nope. She didn’t go to a public school, and she didn’t choose a city because of the achievements of its public schools. Rather, she went to St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee and touted that city as the ‘birthplace of modern education freedom.’ That is a reference to a program started under a 1989 law that was the first in the country to give substantial public funding for students to use for private, nonsectarian schools. It later expanded to include religious schools. That program was part of what grew to be known as the ‘school choice’ movement, which seeks to find alternatives to traditional public school districts so families can decide for themselves where to send their children and to serve as an escape for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods. For decades, DeVos has played a key role in that movement, pushing against critics who argue that using public funds to support choice schools undermines the traditional public system, and that it aims at privatizing the nation’s most important civic institution.”
This week, for the Washington Post, Michael Kranish profiles a politician who, unlike DeVos, has demonstrated that he is the consummate opportunist, Cory Booker, who is running for president as a Democrat and who is claiming this year that he has abjured his previous alliance with Betsy and Dick DeVos. Booker served for years and years as a spokesperson for school vouchers. And he doesn’t appear to have given up his support for charter schools—another privately operated and publicly funded school choice scheme. Kranish details the history of Booker’s previous alliance with Betsy DeVos, an alliance that dates back to a pro-voucher speech Booker delivered nearly two decades ago, a speech in which Booker said: “Wealthy people… ‘have vouchers because they have the power to choose schools for those children.’ It was unfair, he said, that the country’s leaders in effect ‘say to the poorest, most vulnerable Americans that they cannot choose.'”
What Booker somehow missed understanding back in 2000—and what DeVos continues to deny— is that both vouchers and charters suck millions of essential tax dollars out of the public schools to follow a few children even as the majority of children in the public schools lose out. The economist, Gordon Lafer explains the fiscal realities very clearly (and while he focuses on charter schools, it is also true that voucher schemes similarly undermine public school districts as students carry away tax dollars in tuition vouchers for private and religious schools): “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”
As if to emphasize her determination to support school choice whatever the cost to the public schools her U.S. Department of Education is supposed to protect, DeVos visited Detroit this past week—the city where 80 percent of the charter schools are known to be operated for-profit, even while the city’s public schools have languished. Michigan Advance‘s Allison Donahue explains that, “Michigan now has the most for-profit-run charter schools in the country.”
DeVos and her husband, Dick, residents of Grand Rapids in western Michigan, once led an unsuccessful campaign to try to bring school vouchers to Michigan, and on her tour this past week, DeVos once again pitted her ideal of marketplace school choice to the systemic provision of public education. The Detroit News quotes DeVos as she spoke last week at the Detroit Edison Public School Academy—one of 55 charter schools in Detroit. As usual, DeVos cast the teachers unions as her enemy: “I am focused on doing what is right for students, individual students. They are focused on protecting their system, protecting ‘what is’ at the expense of ‘what could be’ for kids… Their policies, their approach, has failed way too many kids, and it’s just inexcusable. And I don’t apologize one bit for continuing to fight for every kid in this country.”
Betsy DeVos is an utterly consistent individualist, even though she seems not to grasp that the purpose of her job as U.S. Secretary of Education is to protect our nation’s system of public schools and to use the tools of her department—the Office for Civil Rights, for example—to ensure that public schools serve the needs and protect the rights of all American students.
Unlike DeVos, Cory Booker, the presidential candidate, cannot brag about consistency in his understanding of education policy. Kranish examines Booker’s political career: “Cory Booker was a little-known member of the Newark City Council 19 years ago when he received an extraordinary invitation from a Michigan group connected to Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were leading Republican proponents of a state ballot initiative that would allow taxpayer-financed vouchers to pay for private schools. The DeVos family wanted Booker, an African American Democrat living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Jersey, to become the face of their effort in Michigan. ‘We wanted someone who wasn’t from the suburbs,’ Dick DeVos said at the time. Booker accepted. Appearing in the state at a Grand Rapids debate called ‘School Vouchers–Yes or No?,’ Booker represented ‘Yes.’ He passionately echoed the DeVos view that parents should be able to use tax dollars to pay for a child’s private school education, according to a video of the event obtained by The Washington Post.” (You can see a video clip of the debate embedded in Kranish’s article.)
Kranish continues: “The debate was the prelude to an unlikely alliance with Betsy DeVos. Booker served with her on the boards of pro-voucher groups, attended numerous meetings with her across the country, and supported key parts of her agenda. Like a number of elected officials representing cities with poor education records, Booker sought alternatives to a failing system. He decided to back vouchers and charter schools. Booker’s political career took off as a parade of wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers and others who supported DeVos’s ‘school choice’ viewpoint poured money into his campaigns and pet projects. But as Booker runs for president, his relationship with DeVos, his previous support of vouchers and his continuing praise for charter schools present potential roadblocks… In response, Booker has defended his record but also performed a series of reversals and denials. In the most striking instance, Booker said in a recent interview with The Post at his campaign headquarters here that he doesn’t recall his participation in the Michigan debate… Booker now takes a view opposite of his debate stance. He told The Post in a recent candidate survey that ‘the evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help—and in fact, hurt—the cause of educational equity.’ In his interview with The Post, Booker said that while he did initially support vouchers when he was on the City Council, he turned against them by the time he became mayor.”
However, in a stunning 2015 book, The Prize, Dale Russakoff describes Booker, then mayor of Newark, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to bring charter schools to Newark. Booker recruited Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to make a $100 million donation to be used for that specific purpose and helped arrange for the splashy announcement of that gift on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
It is hard to be confident about where Cory Booker stands when it comes to public education. Does he understand the fiscal realities posed for public schools by the expansion of marketplace school choice? All we can really know for sure about Cory Booker is that he has a history as an opportunist promoting what has been, so far, a successful political career.