At Brookings, DeVos Restates Her One Belief: School Choice Will Take Care of Everything

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.

Why Do Public School Supporters Struggle to Create and Sustain a Strong Unified Message?

Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, NJ, has articulated a big worry.  Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes:

“A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education—Betsy DeVos—to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope… What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates—good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one—why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?”

Braun continues: “Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state…. (P)ublic education in New Jersey—and throughout the nation—is in serious trouble. It is underfunded. It is racially segregated. It is in danger of being swept away by charters. Its employees are demoralized. It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic. In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.”

Taking a more positive approach in a recent NY Times commentary, Nikole Hannah-Jones expresses the very same concern. “Even when they (public schools) fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable—or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’ ”

Hannah-Jones continues: “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: white residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need… If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public—and on ourselves.”

Both writers hope supporters of public education will be able to sustain the surprising and fascinating outcry that emerged around the DeVos confirmation process in the Senate.  For the first time in years we heard Senators and their constituents alike speaking about the value of the public schools for their children and their communities.  What will it take to keep that message alive?

I believe there are several reasons public school supporters struggle to sustain a strong voice in support of public education. First there is all the money being spent to undermine public education. As long as the law permits unlimited political contributions from individuals, PACs, Super PACs, Dark Money Groups, and corporate-driven lobbying organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it will be difficult for the folks who use the public schools—the parents of 90 percent of our children and their allies—to be heard above the din. Public education policy for decades now has been driven by the One Percent, even though public schools serve the children of the 99 Percent. That is why Bob Braun begs public school advocates to discipline themselves to one well-framed narrative that can be relentlessly driven home.

Second there is the problem created by the privatizers’ clever messaging. The ideologues who have framed the privatizers’ message know how to touch the heart by evoking the beloved story of the  American Dream—the story that success is individual, accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience in a tough and competitive world. This narrative teaches that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. Of course we may acknowledge that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others.  So… we adjust our thinking—celebrating the outliers who have surmounted the obstacles and succeeded anyway. We create a voucher or a charter school for the childhood strivers who seem to have earned it. Some of us are even willing to articulate this 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.” But when Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration suggest we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape into the lifeboat of vouchers or  charter schools, they are presenting a plan that would further isolate the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them.

The problem here is ethical; it is not really a matter of public policy. Do we believe in individualism and competition above all, or are we 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.”

A third problem is in the realm of public policy, but it is an issue nobody is willing to name. Extreme poverty and inequality are undermining children’s opportunities. Public school supporters will sometimes acknowledge the issue of poverty, but the varied strategies by which they dance around this huge problem undermine their capacity to frame a strong central narrative of support for public education. Opponents of public schools, of course, determinedly prescribe privatization as the cure, without a shred of evidence that privatizing schools helps poor children.

Years’ of research confirm conclusively that, in the aggregate, test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more than 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.

On top of our failure to name and address family poverty, our school accountability system demands quick school turnarounds. The federal testing and accountability agenda—created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002 and still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act—makes it even harder for our society to acknowledge the role of poverty in school achievement.  The federal government judges our schools by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and federal law punishes (and insists that states punish) the schools and the school teachers and children in the very poorest schools where test scores don’t quickly rise. Instead of investing in and supporting the schools in our poorest communities, we close the the schools or replace their principals or their teachers. Or we privatize the schools when charter and voucher supporters like Trump or Pence or DeVos tell us that will solve the problem.

For public education supporters, one big challenge is political: to create the will for society to address honestly the well documented educational implications of extreme poverty. A second challenge is a matter of public ethics: to replace the far-right’s American Dream narrative (based on competition and escapes for the most able children) with a compelling narrative of social responsibility for lifting up every child.

A system of public schools, while never perfect, is the best way to meet the needs of all of our children and, through democratic governance, to protect their rights.