On Wednesday, Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education, went to the Brookings Institution to make a big speech on school choice. This was guaranteed to be an audience sympathetic to her ideas, as the event was the announcement of Brookings’ fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index.
Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describing the event: “DeVos gave keynote remarks at Brookings, where the think tank unveiled its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, its ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts. For the 2016 index, the district with the highest score was Denver, followed by the Recovery School District in New Orleans, New York City, Newark and Boston. D.C. Schools was ninth on the list, which is compiled with a number of measures, including the availability and mix of choice options for parents.”
In her speech at Brookings, Betsy DeVos once again describes herself as “passionate about… increasing education options for parents and students. It’s something I view as a fundamental right too long denied to too many kids… First, parents know what is best for their kids… Secondly, good teachers know what’s best for the students in their classrooms… And thirdly, state and local leaders are best equipped to address the unique challenges and opportunities they face, not the federal government.” DeVos affirms her belief in the primary right of the family and her support for state’s rights and local control.
One bright spot here: On Wednesday, DeVos declared that she trusts school teachers. That is actually sort of radical these days.
But the focus is on choice: “I am in favor of increased choice, but I’m not in favor of any one form of choice over another. I’m simply in favor of giving parents more and better options to find an environment that will set their child up for success… Let me say it again: we must change the way we think about funding education and instead invest in children, not in buildings.” Of course there are some complications here, because DeVos conflates the idea of a building with the educational institution that is situated in any particular building. One wonders how one might set up these institutions if the funding arrives via the little backpack of funding each child brings, after having selected a particular “building.” How would those in charge of “a building” know how many children might arrive and how might administrators plan for and hire the appropriate teachers in advance? How could administrators ensure the presence of teachers skilled in working with students who have disabilities or who need to learn English, for example? What about children’s need for school stability, which comes from a principal’s building and nurturing a professional staff over time?
DeVos speaks about the “delivery mechanism” for school choice and says she is open to any of them: “(T)here is no one delivery mechanism of education choice: Open enrollment, tax credits, home schools, magnets, charters, virtual schools, education savings accounts and choices not yet developed all have their place, but no single one of these is always the right delivery method for each child.” DeVos continues, chiding her critics: “Policymakers at every level of government would do well to maintain a humble acknowledgement of these facts. Let’s put aside the politics of the adults and actually focus on what will best serve kids.”
DeVos lists some things that she believes are needed to make “choice” work. Parents need information about their choices that is “accessible, transparent and accountable.” And parents need “a full menu of options.”
Choice in education, says DeVos, ought to be like choice in transportation and accommodations: “The truth is that in practice people like having more options. They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others. Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb. We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging… Why do we not allow parents to exercise the same right to choice in the education of their child?”
The session where DeVos presented her speech was sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families and was moderated by Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of Brookings. In a followup discussion with Whitehurst, DeVos is described as emphasizing her well-known belief that traditional public schools are “a dead end.” Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week reports that on Wednesday DeVos declared “she wasn’t sure they (public schools) could be much worse.” She said the failure of public education is demonstrated by low scores on the international PISA test and stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
Ujifusa tries to put long-term score trends on both tests in historical perspective. He explains: “It’s important to note that DeVos spoke very generally about the exams, and that breaking out the results by subject and grade level are important to getting a fuller picture of performance on these tests.” Neither DeVos nor any of the commentaries I’ve seen has explored the enormous disparities in test scores among the schools in wealthy communities and poor communities. David Berliner recently pointed out that students in America’s wealthy suburban public schools that serve homogeneously privileged student populations are known to score as high as any students in the world on standardized tests.
Notice that DeVos thinks in generalities. Schools are broken, “a dead end,” as she has said. And notice that she doesn’t really think about what may challenge a principal, for example, or a teacher in the particular school settings one might find across the fifty states—rural isolation—a homeless child—a child who arrives from another country and doesn’t speak English—a deaf or autistic child—a classroom with many very poor children—a school where almost all of the children don’t speak English and have arrived from many countries and speak two dozen primary languages and are learning English. She doesn’t seem to worry about what may be the pedagogical and psychological impact of federally mandated high stakes testing on the children and on how their teachers teach and how the teachers feel about their work.
Questions about education begin with the key pronouns: who? what? when? where? why? and how? But for Betsy DeVos, the answer to all of these questions is “letting parents choose the school for their child.” She focuses on the “what.” Ironically that always involves a choice among an ever-growing number of private or privatized schools. DeVos has never endorsed the right to a quality, accessible public school that serves every child who arrives at the door, protects that child’s rights, and creates a program to serve that child’s needs.
DeVos also cares about the “who.” She defines the civil rights issue of our times not as child’s right to quality education but instead as the parent’s right to choose. Notice that DeVos privileges the institution of the family over the institution of the school and certainly over the institution of government. It is a belief system that privileges the individual over the community and that situates all control over children as the right of the family. DeVos’s famous comment at a 2015 ed tech conference, “Government really sucks!” was not so much a critique of the workings of government as it was a reflection of her belief system that elevates the rights of family over the protection of civil rights by the public.
DeVos always forgets to address the “how” questions—how public schools ought to work—how federal education policy ought to work —how teachers should be working with children—how we can really pay for all this in an unequal society where the wealthy who can afford it have sequestered themselves in elite local enclaves and been granted state and federal tax cuts.
There is another “how” question that didn’t come up at Brookings. How can our society do a better job of serving each child’s needs and how can the federal government protect 50 million children’s right to a quality education? If Betsy DeVos were to address that question honestly, public schools would have to be a primary part of the answer just because of the scale of the endeavor. Vouchers and charter schools—the privatized alternatives she endorses—have never been imagined as more than a lifeboat for a tiny percentage of our nation’s children.
Maria Danilova of the Associated Press reports that at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, Grover Whitehurst repeated a point that he had made in the report Brookings released to announce this year’s Brookings Education Choice and Competition Index: “There is no question that alternatives to the traditional school district model are destructive of the traditional school district model… Whether they are harmful, neutral or helpful to students, families, and the nation is, in the end, an empirical question.”
Danilova also quotes DeVos’ response: “I would argue that these alternatives are constructive, not destructive for students, parents and teachers.” It seems that DeVos cannot even be trapped into wondering about the potential strengths of traditional public schools.