More on the Public Purpose of Our Public Schools and the Role of Public Governance

There has recently been a debate among guest writers in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post. The Network for Public Education’s  Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch published a defense of public governance of public schools, a column which critiqued a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.  The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond responded with a defense of the Learning Policy Institute’s report, which defends school choice including privately governed and operated charter schools. Finally Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris responded to Darling-Hammond’s response. This blog weighed in here last week.

As it happens, Stanford University emeritus professor of education, David Labaree enhances this conversation with a new column on the public purpose of public education at Phi Delta Kappan: “We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means.  But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century… it’s becoming less and less obvious….”

A spoiler: There is no equivocation in Labaree’s analysis.  He is a strong supporter of public education, and he worries that by prizing the personal and individualistic benefit of education, our society may have lost sight of our schools’ public purpose: “A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally.  In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.”

Labaree traces the history of public education through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he believes more recently: “Over the subsequent decades… growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or collective investment in workforce development.”

Labaree does not explicitly address growing school privatization, but he generalizes about the growing individualistic American ethos that accommodates privatization: “At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.”

Labaree holds the education of citizens as among the central purposes of our grandparents and their forebears as they envisioned public schools: “The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared both for commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas… But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society.”

Beyond Labaree’s philosophical defense of public education’s communitarian purpose and his condemnation of our society’s love of individual competition today, there are other concerns with the abandonment of public purpose and the abandonment of public governance of education.  We can no longer ignore the failure of our state legislatures to protect the tax dollars raised by the public but ripped off by unscrupulous edupreneurs who build mansions and take lavish trips with the money they steal in states which have failed to prevent conflicts of interest and outright fraud by operators of privatized schools. We can no longer ignore the instability for students when privately governed charter schools suddenly shut down without warning—often in the middle of the school year. And we can no longer ignore the impact of the rapid authorization of charter schools and growth of voucher programs as they suck money out of states’ already meager public education budgets and at the same time destabilize their host school districts.

Labaree connects the growth of school privatization with our society’s competitive individualism which reserves a spot at the top for able children of the privileged and settles for cheaper alternatives for the children we have always left behind. I once heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson poignantly describe the ethical lapse in a system featuring individualism: “There are those who would 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.”

Another perfect formulation of Labaree’s concern is from the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Barber adds another important component of public governance, however: the protection of the rights of students and families by law in public institutions: “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)

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Advocates for Public Schools Have Good Reasons to Keep on Fighting Against Privatization and Corporate Reform

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.

Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad…  High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster…  National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”

In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies.  What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia.  And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement.  And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious.  But it seems the plague is finally being contained.  Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization.  He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity.  (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)

South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers?  In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”

Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.

Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season.  After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring,  hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes.  Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.

And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.

One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today.  In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics.  The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests.  Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”

Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.

Bringing the Education Conversation Back to What Society Has Forgotten: Poverty and Inequity

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein castigated conservative reformers who construct a narrative of government failure as the justification for privatization. Over the years, education writers have documented that the narrative of the overwhelming failure of American public schools is fake news—a distorted story to justify the expansion of charters and vouchers and to trash teachers and their unions.

Twenty years ago, in The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle documented that school “reformers” were constructing a specious narrative of public school failure: “(O)n the whole, the American school system is in far better shape than the critics would have us believe; where American schools fail, those failures are largely caused by problems that are imposed on those schools, problems that the critics have been only too happy to ignore. American education can be restructured, improved, and strengthened—but to build realistic programs for achieving these goals, we must explode the myths of the Manufactured Crisis and confront the real problems of American education.” (The Manufactured Crisis, p. 12)

Then in 2012, tracing a trend of modest but consistent improvement over the decades in scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Diane Ravitch reached the same conclusion: “In the early years of the twenty-first century, a bipartisan consensus arose about education policy in the United States. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans, the leading members of our political class and our media seemed to agree: Public education is broken… Furthermore, according to this logic… blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals… Since teachers are the problem, their job protections must be eliminated and teachers must be fired. Teachers’ unions must be opposed at every turn… (W)hat is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling…  The reformers say they care about poverty, but they do not address it other than to insist upon private management of the schools in urban districts; the reformers ignore racial segregation altogether, apparently accepting it as inevitable… What began as a movement to ‘save minority children from failing schools’ and narrow the achievement gap by privatizing their schools has not accomplished that goal….” (Reign of Error, pp. 2-6)

Now Jack Schneider, an education professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, refutes the myth of school failure again—in a new book (due out in mid-August), Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality—and currently in a series of articles being published by The Atlantic. Schneider deconstructs the fake news of widespread school failure and identifies what needs to be improved. His analysis is urgently needed at a time when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is dominating the airwaves with a mindless, libertarian reiteration of the importance of parents’ freedom to choose. Schneider accepts the conclusions of sociologists like Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, who has demonstrated that the rich are retreating into wealthy enclaves where the schools are pockets of privilege. States reward these high scoring schools with “A” grades and punish schools in mixed income and poor communities with labels of failure—a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages further economic segregation and ignores society’s responsibility to its most vulnerable children.

Here is Schneider in a reflection published in late June, America’s Not-So-Broken Education System: “American education has some obvious shortcomings.  Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.”

Schneider concludes: “Perhaps the most serious consequence of the ‘broken system’ narrative is that it draws attention away from the real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging ‘brokenness’—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power…  (I)t is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system.”

In a second article published earlier this week, Schneider examines the policy consequences when ideologues convince politicians that public schools are a failure: “If the nation’s schools are generally doing well, it doesn’t make much sense to disrupt them.  But if they are in a state of decline, disruption takes on an entirely new meaning. Seizing on the presumed failures of the education system, reform advocates have pushed hard for contentious policies—expansion of charter schools, for instance, or the use of value-added measures of teacher effectiveness—that might have less traction in a more positive policy climate.”

And what about the misuse of data? “For the past 15 years, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, Americans have had access to standardized achievement scores for all public schools. But test scores tend to indicate more about students’ backgrounds than about the schools they attend. As research indicates, out-of-school factors like family and neighborhood account for roughly 60 percent of the variance in student test scores; teachers, by contrast—the largest in-school influence—account for only about 10 percent. And test scores convey little else about the many things parents and other stakeholders care about… They indicate nothing, for instance, about how safe students feel, how strong their relationships with teachers are, or how they are developing socially and emotionally. They indicate nothing about what teaching looks like, how varied the curriculum is, or the extent to which parents and community members are involved.  It’s impossible to know the quality of a school without knowing these things.”

I hope you will read both of Schneider’s articles. I look forward to reading his new book. Schneider brings the focus back to our collective responsibility to keep improving the public schools themselves—the public institutions we trust to serve all children, meet their many needs, and protect their rights.

Why People Who Know REALLY Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

You no doubt know that Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, has devoted her fortune and her advocacy to promoting school privatization through expansion of vouchers and unregulated charters. DeVos believes that if parents are given a choice and enough money to choose, they’ll improve the product by voting with their feet. Her theory, if not the reality, is that bad schools will then close and children will be better served. As the Senate considers her confirmation, people who know a lot about public education are warning Senators to oppose her.  Here are highlights of four articles—all by experts—all from different points of view.  Please do follow the links and read the articles themselves.  They are all short.

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Brett McNeil, whose The High School Where Our Kids Belong appeared on Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times, describes himself as someone who shifted careers, seeking teaching mid-career, working in a Chicago public high school and a Chicago charter high school. Although he has now left teaching for work in journalism, he brings the seldom-heard perspective of a teacher from inside two contrasting high schools, and he explains: “(W)ith charter school champion Betsy DeVos set to preside over federal education policy, I thought I might highlight some key differences between the public and charter school models.”  He describes the two schools in which he taught: “Both schools have student populations that are predominantly minority—one African American, the other Latino. Both schools also have a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches….”  McNeil contrasts the facilities, programs, and extras at the two schools. The public school has a library with librarians, a large gym and gym classes and a performing arts center, while the charter lacks a library, librarians, gym classes and performing arts. The public high school offers a range of enrichments—a video production lab; a 25-yard swimming pool and swim team; a band room, band classes and marching band; art classes; drama classes and a drama club; National Honors Society; an International Baccalaureate curriculum; an auto shop; a student council; an improv club; and a literary journal.  He describes the charter as occupying a “decommissioned” elementary school, and he explains that the facility still feels like a grade school.

McNeil’ conclusion captures a reality that would matter to a great many adolescents and their parents: “The public school, while not a feeder to the Ivy Leagues, looks and feels a lot more like what I suspect readers imagine when they read the words ‘high school.’ It’s a comprehensive institution, offers a breath of classes and activities to a wide range of students with varying abilities and interests, and it functions as a neighborhood hub. Parents and siblings attend plays, concerts, sporting events, the usual.”

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Sarah Carr is a journalist, editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of Hope Against Hope, a book about the transformation of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. Even Carr, who describes herself as a supporter of school choice, worries about DeVos based on Carr’s experience covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 2002-2007.  In  her recent piece at Slate, Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work, Carr explains that part of her assignment was reporting on the evolution of the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee: “Milwaukee’s program historically targeted low-income families, allowing them to use state-funded tuition vouchers to send their children to private schools and, as of 1998 religious ones. When I started reporting in Milwaukee, potential voucher school operators basically needed only a building occupancy permit—and a group of willing families with kids to open a school and rake in hundreds of thousands of public dollars. Not surprisingly, the schools’ quality ran the gamut: Some were run by accomplished, talented, and dedicated educators; others by criminals with no background in education.”  Carr explains that many parents continued to choose schools with poor academic records.

Carr declares: “DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America.”  Wisconsin has, “over the past 10 years…  started to require much more of voucher school operators…. Now schools in Milwaukee must survive an accreditation process, meet stricter hiring and financial standards, and administer the same state standardized tests as public schools.” She concludes: “The Milwaukee story, combined with substantial research showing that charter schools tend to perform better in states with rigorous vetting of charter operators, helped usher in a new phase of ‘school choice’ in many communities: one in which government agencies or designees play a more aggressive role in determining what constitutes quality education—and what does not.”

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Diane Ravitch and John Jackson both bring reservations about the nomination of Betsy Devos based on their experience working in the U.S. Department of Education.

Diane Ravitch is an academic historian of education, and someone who, before a radical transformation based on the evidence of the failure of No Child Left Behind, worked as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush administration. (In her 2010 book, Ravitch formally rejected her previous support for what is now called “corporate school reform.”) This week Ravitch addressed a public letter to now Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, a promoter of school privatization, and currently the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, which is considering the DeVos nomination.

In her Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander about Betsy DeVos, Ravitch addresses Senator Alexander as an old friend.  She worries about what she heard from Betsy DeVos in the HELP Committee’s confirmation hearing: “When asked direct questions about important federal issues… (DeVos) was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left up to the states to decide whether or not to comply; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional… She was unfamiliar with the terminology of education issues… I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit… She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy.  It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all.  This is not ‘reform.’  This is backsliding.  This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress toward public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English.  We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it.  School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.”

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Dr. John H. Jackson, President and C.E.O. of the Schott Foundation for Public Education served as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights during the Clinton administration.  Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education have been leaders in promoting justice in the public schools by advocating for closing the resource opportunity gaps that drive the racial and economic achievement gaps in test scores.  In Our Next Secretary of Education Should Know Education, Jackson affirms the right of “a freely elected president… (to) appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate” cabinet officials.  However, he observes that in her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos demonstrated that she, “lacks even the most basic knowledge and capabilities required for the responsibility of U.S. Secretary of Education… In fact, the hearing laid bare astonishing deficits in DeVos’s understanding of the obligations and authority of the Department of Education… Her inability to assemble the team and dedicate the time necessary to adequately prepare for one of the most predictable parts of the process and the job—the Senate Confirmation Hearing—should be alarming and offensive to Senate members on both sides of the aisle.”

Jackson, leader of a foundation, criticizes DeVos as a philanthropist: “DeVos is a well-heeled philanthropist who has championed the expansion of charter schools, school vouchers, and tuition tax credit programs… Yet possessing millions of dollars does not automatically make a philanthropist — or a philanthropic organization — more prepared or more credible.  As a funder dedicated to ensuring that all students in our public education system have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn, the Schott Foundation’s thought leadership has been sharpened through 25 years of experience working with and learning from parents, students, and educators in local communities, districts and public schools across the nation.  It’s clear that Mrs. DeVos has little in the way of federal education policy experience as she was rarely able to provide substantive answers to legitimate questions about her ideas and plans.  DeVos currently has no experience serving in public schools as an educator, administrator, board member or superintendent.  She has no earned degree in education.  She was neither a student of a public school nor the parent of one.  Furthermore, the results of her work championing school choice programs and privatization efforts in her home state of Michigan have been dismal.”

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While on Monday, the Democratic Senators in the HELP Committee requested an additional opportunity to question Ms. DeVos about her qualifications and her potential conflicts of interest, the Committee’s chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, has denied the request.  The committee members will vote on the DeVos nomination next Tuesday, January 31 at 10 AM. After the committee vote, the nomination will very likely move to the Senate floor.  Please continue to call your U.S. Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.

Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2

After today, this blog will begin a two-week holiday break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.  Good wishes for the holidays!

Here is the second half of a two-part post—yesterday and today—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos

You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”

But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding.  During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation.  News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the New York University education historian Diane Ravitch coined the term “The Billionaire Boys Club” to describe a new wave of mega-philanthropy—no longer responsive to the ideas of a range of grant seekers but instead driven by the strategies of foundation boards and staffs—and geared not simply to meeting the funding needs of supplicant nonprofits but instead to influencing the direction of policy.  In that book Ravitch warned: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Now Ravitch has published an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education, to explain how the Billionaire Boys have paved the way for the appointment of another— and this time more radical—philanthropist, Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education. (The article is paywalled in The Chronicle, but Ravitch has provided a copy on her personal blog.)

In her new piece, Ravitch reviews the membership of the original Billionaire Boys Club and demonstrates its influence: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for ‘school choice,’ which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.) At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.”  While Betsy DeVos’s philanthropic priorities are much farther to the right, Ravitch argues that the more centrist foundations have normalized school choice through their donations and as program officers from the Gates Foundation were brought in as key staff at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

Ravitch argues that, working in concert, these foundations and their philanthropic gifts have shifted the broader conversation to normalize what has become known as “corporate school reform” and to promote school choice.  They have also created and funded think tanks to justify this work and created  a concerted messaging campaign to favor their agenda; “For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are ‘failing’; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better.  It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.”

I urge you to read Ravitch’s critique and refutation of the mega-philanthropists’ agenda.  As Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to move the privatization agenda deeper and farther to the right, Ravitch reminds readers about something that none of today’s mega-foundations seems to be promoting: “(U)niversal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.”

Because, as Ravitch points out, Betsy DeVos’s experience is in far-right philanthropy, it might be expected that she’ll bring staff people with whom she is comfortable to run the U.S. Department of Education.  And this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s most experienced reporter on federal education policy, has explored that very topic: Who Is Part of Ed.Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?  “After all,” begins Klein, “she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency. In filling posts…. DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently.  Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice  Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.” Venable has served as national director of advocacy and legislation for Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Klein suspects that the DeVos-founded American Federation for Children will be sending several staff people to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education. What sort of experience would they bring?  “Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin…. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice.”

Klein speculates that Greg Brock, executive director of AFC might be tapped.  For several years between 2000 and 2010, “Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos.  The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans… Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project,” the Michigan organization that has promoted charter schools and blocked state laws to regulate charters.  Other American Federation for Children staff described by Klein are Matt Frendewey, AFC’s communications director, and John Schilling, AFC’s chief operating officer.

Another DeVos insider, Greg MeNeilly, is currently chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company owned by the DeVoses.  “McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law…. On the education front, he was the communications director of ‘Kids First! Yes!’ And from 1998 to 2000 he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP (Great Lakes Education Project)…. (H)e’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.”

Klein also mentions Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and driver of a national campaign to eliminate due-process job protection for school teachers and undermine teachers unions. Quite recently Campbell Brown launched what she claims is an objective education news website, The 74. Given Cambell Brown’s well-known biases, it is difficult to take seriously her claim of journalistic objectivity. About Campbell Brown, Alyson Klein notes: “She did however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.”

Finally, to sum up the basic profile of Betsy DeVos, we can turn to Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools. “DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools… One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness… Almost two-thirds of the state’s (Michigan’s) charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities… And, despite the rhetoric of ‘choice,’ lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”

Mead reminds us: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment… In one interview… DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preemptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:

What Will It Mean if Trump Extends the Privatization of Public Education?

In the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch asks: When Public Goes Private (in Education), as Trump Wants: What Happens?

Privatization of our schools is not new, but many of its promoters have been obscuring its growth over the past two decades by calling it something different: “For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves ‘reformers’ to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to ‘reform’? These days, those who call themselves ‘education reformers’ are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The ‘reform’ movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.”

Why have people been so anxious to undermine the institution, historically unique to the United States, of a system of publicly operated, publicly owned, publicly regulated schools designed to serve all of the nation’s children?  “The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as ‘government schools,’ hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning ‘education industry.’ The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, ‘We want to privatize public schools.’ They say, ‘We want to save poor children from failing schools.’  Therefore, ‘We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,’ and ‘We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.'”

Ravitch is an education historian, and her story of the growth of privatization under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—a trend President-elect Donald Trump has promised to swell—captures the essential elements of what has happened: “The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives.  Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures… If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans. In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low scores. In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools.”

Ravitch lists some of the powerful hedge-fund-backed organizations that lobby for the spread of charter schools—Democrats for Education Reform and Families for Excellent Schools.  And she implicates the role of philanthropy in subsidizing the privatization of education: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Fisher Family Foundation, Reed Hastings  of Netflix, Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma that makes Oxycontin, and Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos who made their fortune through Amway.

Ravitch’s piece is a book review of Samuel Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset and Mercedes Schneider’s School Choice: The End of Public Education? These are important books, and I urge you to read Ravitch’s piece as a book review.

But the importance of this article is as an excellent, brief, historical summary of the privatization of education—interesting for all readers, but of particular value for the general reader who has not become deeply immersed in the issues of today’s education war.  The summary is accurate, and Ravitch is very clear about what is at stake.  She describes a resolution passed in October by the NAACP, “which called for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that pubic schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until ‘public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.'”

Ravitch concludes: “(T)here is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education… When there is a public school system, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the education of all children in the community… We invest in public education because it is an investment in the future of society… Whatever its faults, the public school system is a hallmark of democracy, doors open to all.  It is an essential part of the common good. It must be improved for all who attend and paid for by all.  Privatizing portions of it, as Trump wants, will undermine public support and will provide neither equity nor better education.”