DeVos’s Opponents are Definitely Not Complacent Defenders of the Status Quo

Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday and sworn in as our new U.S. Secretary of Education. It became clear in the run up to the Senate’s closest-ever vote on a Cabinet secretary that millions of Americans value the idea of a system of universal, publicly funded schools and want to preserve public education despite the threat of privatization. Ms. DeVos’s views are very different.

In an editorial yesterday, the NY Times summarizes DeVos’s experience and her beliefs: “She has never run, taught in, attended or sent a child to an American public school, and her confirmation hearings laid bare her ignorance of education policy and scorn for public education itself.  She has donated millions to, and helped direct, groups that want to replace traditional public schools with charter schools and convert taxpayer dollars to vouchers to help parents send children to private and religious schools.”

Some of DeVos’s supporters have castigated her opponents as comfortable apologists for the status quo. Those of us who opposed DeVos will need to prove we neither fit this label nor accept the status quo. As primary civic institutions, public schools reflect the sins as well as the strengths of our society. We’ll need to demand loudly and persistently that our imperfect system be made to realize its potential for better serving the marginalized children who continue to be left behind even as we insist that public schools must do a better job serving all children’s needs and protecting their rights.

Here are just three of the important issues that slipped out of the conversation as we debated Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary.  We will need to be relentless in raising these concerns.

First, we’ve been ignoring poverty. There is a primary flaw in the federal school accountability system that was created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002, and it is still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December of 2015.  We judge our schools these days by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and we are set on punishing the schools and the school teachers in places where test scores don’t quickly rise. Yet, years’ of research show conclusively that aggregate test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more then they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty.  Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.  You are aware of these problems if you are reading books by Thomas Piketty, or reports from the Economic Policy Institute, or demographic sociology from Sean Reardon at Stanford University, but you sure don’t ever hear any politicians reflecting on these matters. Concentrated urban poverty is an issue our politicians won’t talk about, and it remains at the heart of our society’s biggest concerns for educating our children.

Second, the idea of instituting competition and rewarding success in a privatized system is grounded in a belief system that is contrary to the values by which our ancestors created a system of public education. Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration prefer to assume we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape through vouchers or to charter schools. It’s a lifeboat strategy that gives a leg up to a few strivers even as it isolates the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, recent immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them. This kind of thinking is epitomized by the mythology of the American Dream—that success is individual—accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience. Adherents of this story prefer to believe that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place.  If we think about it, however, most of us will admit that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others. So… we adjust our thinking again—celebrating the outliers who surmount the obstacles and succeed anyway.  Then we make policy based on the unusual success stories of these heroes. Some of us are even willing to articulate such a strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.”  There is a basic ethical question here: whether we believe in individual merit above all or whether we are committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  When Betsy DeVos says, “Government really sucks,” she is elevating the value of individual competition in an education marketplace and trashing the idea that the community, expressed through its democratic government, is responsible for the well being of all.

And third, money in politics makes it virtually impossible ever to regulate a privatized school choice marketplace. As long as there are unlimited political contributions being donated by individuals, along with PACs, and Super PACs, and Dark Money Groups investing to buy education policy, it doesn’t really matter if the goal is to privatize education to make a profit or merely to privatize because of an ideology like Betsy DeVos’s.  All that money washing around in the politics of privatization is going to ensure that education privatization cannot possibly be regulated. People like Betsy DeVos will be able to contribute their way into office and to underwrite others who believe in—or profit from—the same ideology.  State governments—already amenable to pressure from corporate money through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council—will neglect to protect children because political contributions will ensure that privatization remains unregulated.  A public system will work only when we can curb the flow of money buying private interests.

Those of us who worked to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination must remain actively engaged—demanding that our society grapple with how poverty constrains children’s academic promise, condemning an immoral strategy designed to privatize education and  to serve a few at the expense of the many, and naming relentlessly the fact that a charter school marketplace can never be regulated as long as politics are flooded with money. We’ll have to build the political will to insist that our representatives understand that democratically governed public schools are the most promising institution for addressing these serious problems.

Ohio Supreme Court Rules Private Charter School Management Firm Owns Public Assets

Yesterday Ohio’s elected, Republican-dominated supreme court ruled that a privately held, for-profit charter management company, White Hat Management, owns the equipment and assets of several White Hat Hope Academies and Life Skills Academies that had sought to sever ties with White Hat and hire a new management company to run the schools. White Hat is owned by Akron entrepreneur and Republican mega-donor David Brennan.  The boards of ten Hope and Life Skills Academies had filed a lawsuit to recover assets purchased with public dollars that White Hat said its contract awarded to the management company.

The Columbus Dispatch describes Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger’s decision for the majority: “that charter school operators perform a governmental function and establish a fiduciary relationship with the schools they manage in purchasing school equipment, contrary to the position taken by White Hat.”  The Dispatch continues: “Current law largely does not address the duties of school operators and does not restrict the provisions of contracts between operators and charter schools, Lanzinger wrote.”

Over ten years, the Dispatch reports, the state paid approximately $100 million to the ten schools in Cleveland and Akron.  All the schools contracted with White Hat in 2005, agreeing to turn over 95 percent of each school’s state funding to pay teacher salaries, building rentals, utilities, and other expenses, an agreement known as a “sweeps contract” in which the management company receives virtually all of the school’s revenue and handles all of its operations with little day-to-day oversight by the school’s board.  The Akron Beacon Journal explains: “The dispute arose when the school boards and White Hat parted ways.  The school boards wanted to change management companies, but White Hat said that by virtue of its contract, it owned the assets of the schools, and the boards would need to move to a new location and acquire their own equipment and supplies, or buy the assets of the schools from White Hat.  The schools argued that the assets, purchased with public money, did not belong to White Hat.”

It is not surprising that the boards of the schools failed to negotiate a careful, tough contract with the management company to protect the schools’ assets for the schools.  It has been known for years that White Hat played an active role in helping recruit members of the boards of its schools—board members whose job was supposedly to oversee the performance of the management company.  In March of 2014, Doug Livingston reported for the Akron Beacon Journal that several board members of White Hat schools admitted openly that they had been recruited by White Hat Management to sit on charter school boards, despite that the IRS expects “a bright line between the charter-school governing board and the management company hired to run the school.  The company should not create the board or recruit its members, and any evidence of boilerplate contracts from one school to the next suggests the company many be in control.”  One board member told the Beacon Journal that White Hat had asked her to serve on the boards of four of its schools.

Stephen Dyer of Innovation Ohio explains that Justice Lanzinger received a $5,000 campaign donation from David Brennan in 2004.  Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor received campaign donations from Brennan in 2002, 2008, and 2010, totaling $11,900.  Justice Judith French received a donation last year from Brennan of $7,200.  Dyer notes that Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who has received $15,000 from Brennan over the years, recused himself.  Justice Paul Pfeiffer has not accepted a campaign donation from Brennan since the early 1990s.

Pfeiffer was the lone Republican dissenter from yesterday’s majority opinion, and he made his independence explicit: “The contracts in this case are plainly and obviously unconscionable.  The contracts require that after the public pays to buy those materials for a public use, the public must then pay the companies if it wants to retain ownership of the materials.  This contract term is not merely unwise as the opinion would have us believe; it is extremely unfair, so unfair, in fact, as to be unconscionable.  The contract term is so one-sided that we should refuse to enforce it.”  Justice William O’Neill, the court’s only Democrat, calls White Hat’s contracts with its charter schools, “a fraudulent conversion of public funds into personal profit.”

Two weeks ago, Brent Larkin, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009, commented on the pending decision of the state supreme court in the White Hat Case: “White Hat is owned by Akron’s David Brennan.  He and William Lager, owner of the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, who have made millions by taking our money and not educating kids, have funneled more than $6 million into Republican candidates and causes.” “Operators of Ohio’s growing number of lousy charter schools are one win away from hitting a trifecta.  They’ve got the legislature in their hip pocket and a governor who is an inexplicable and inexcusable no-show on the issue.  Two down, one to go: The payoff for controlling the judiciary won’t be millions.  It’ll be tens, maybe hundreds, of millions. And every single penny of it will come from your pocket.  Only in Ohio could charter school operators come this close to essentially having their way with all three branches of government.”

Yesterday the Ohio Supreme Court confirmed Larkin’s fears.