National School Funding Expert Shreds Far-Right Rationale for Portable School Funding

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has gone around relentlessly announcing her philosophy of education, even in places where the message might not be age-appropriate. For example, last fall to celebrate the beginning of the school year, DeVos visited a K-8 school in Casper, Wyoming, where she told the children: “Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”  Earlier in the summer, she had said the same thing to a more comprehending and likely audience at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “There are individual men and women and there are families… and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

DeVos’s words have been consistent, despite that to me they sound like gobbledygook. How do we separate the needs of the individual children being educated from the system of schools our society has set up for that purpose? Is DeVos’s message really just an empty, educational-libertarian linguistic construction to convey the message she stated bluntly in another 2015 speech, when she declared, “Government really sucks.”?

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, now renamed as ExcelinEd, recently released a brief to help us understand what DeVos means when she says, “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families.”  The new brief, Student-Centered State Funding: A How-to Guide for State Policymakers, purports to tell states how to remake their school funding distribution formulas in order to make each child’s school funding fully portable—a little backpack full of cash that the student can carry with her as her parents choose the school they believe will perfectly meet her needs. The brief seems to emphasize public school choice across school districts, but the implication is that the state/local public funding would be fully portable to whatever school, public or private, the parent might choose.

ExcelinEd’s brief says there are five simple steps for remaking a state’s school finance: “(1) Establish a base funding amount that every district receives for each student served… (2) Require local funding for a district on a per student basis…. (3) Structure all funding for students with special needs or disadvantages as a weight…. (4) Adjust funding for districts each year based on the number and characteristics of students they are serving. (5) Remove restrictions on how districts spend money….”  ExcelinEd defends its new strategy as more transparent, more empowering of districts and parents, and fairer.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado asked Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, to evaluate ExcelinEd’s new plan.  NEPC just published Baker’s review.

Baker is not impressed: “First, the brief advances the false dichotomy that state and district school finance systems should focus on funding the child, not funding the (bureaucratic, adult-centered) institutions that serve those children. This false dichotomy wrongly asserts there is no benefit to children of equitably and adequately financing educational institutions, and ignores the fact that it ultimately takes institutions, institutional structures and governance to deliver the relevant and appropriate programs and services… Second, the brief is based on overly simplistic, frequently misrepresented, and often outright incorrect versions of the status quo.  This includes overbroad mischaracterizations of how schools are currently financed…  Third, the details of the brief’s proposals and espoused benefits are entirely speculative and unsubstantiated….”

In its brief, ExcelinEd describes its theory about how states currently operate public schools: (1) that, “states fund specific staffing positions, services, programs or schools rather than students,” (2) that “states have hold harmless provisions such that districts get the same funding even if they lose students,” (3) that “states allow local funding of districts that is not dependent on the number of students,” and (4) that “states provide additional funding to districts that have a relatively small number of students.”  Baker  demonstrates the flaws in ExcelinEd’s argument: “The authors appear to be unaware or simply ignore the vast body of peer reviewed literature for guiding a) the setting of foundation levels, based on ‘costs’ of providing children with equal opportunities to achieve common outcome goals, b) the determination of additional costs associated with variation in individual student needs and in collective student population needs, c) the additional costs associated with differences in economies of scale and population sparsity, and d) the differences in costs associated with geographic differences in competitive wages for teachers and other school staff.  Additionally, literature dating back nearly 100 years addresses methods for determining equitable local contribution toward foundation spending levels.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s brief for ignoring that school funding inequity is universally connected to disparities in the local property taxing capacity of local school districts. He explains that a primary purpose of state aid formulas is to equalize—to compensate for unequal local capacity—“to… keep in check per-pupil inequity resulting from local property tax revenues.”  “But the obsession in the ExcelinEd policy brief seems to be primarily on the fact that available funding for school districts is not 100% linked to the coming and going of individual students… ExcelinEd offers a bizarre illustration of how districts could increase or decrease their property taxes as enrollment shifts occur, with no consideration whatsoever of the primary basis by which local contributions are determined…. That is, to ensure that local jurisdictions, regardless of their wealth, can attain adequate and equitable per-pupil resources… The authors do not address the property wealth equalization goals of state school finance formulas….”

Baker further condemns ExcelinEd’s failure to acknowledge the role of concentrated student poverty across a local district’s student population, and failure to distinguish concentrated poverty from any individual student’s personal lack of resources. While it would be relatively easy to compensate for a child’s personal poverty with weighted additional funding the child would carry in his personal backpack full of cash, concentrated poverty is a more serious challenge that is glossed over in ExcelinEd’s brief.  Here is Baker: “Student demographic factors that affect the institutional costs of achieving common outcomes come in two parts—individual factors related to specific-student needs (language proficiency, disability) and collective population factors, including poverty, the concentration of poverty, and interaction of poverty with population density.  These ‘social context’ factors do not simply move with the child. A specific child’s marginal cost in one social context setting might be quite different than in another.” “Here the authors choose to outright deny that the marginal costs of an additional low-income student in a predominantly low-income setting might be different from the marginal costs of that same student in a higher income setting, and that accommodating those costs might improve equity…. (T)his means simply ignoring a legitimate driver of the cost of providing equal opportunity and thus knowingly disadvantaging students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty, merely to preserve their dogmatic view that all funding can and should be ‘student centered.’ That is, the authors are rationalizing the maintenance of inequality, because it’s just too hard to accommodate in their pro-choice framework.”

Baker notes that ExcelinEd’s brief denies the existence of stranded costs when children leave a school district for school choice: “(T)he authors’ treatment of funding related to declining enrollment fails to comprehend institutional cost structures…. Rather, in their view, any dollar that does not travel immediately with the child is a dollar spent inequitably and/or inefficiently…. (I)nstitutions providing services to the state’s children must manage fixed costs (institutional overhead, including capital stock), step costs (classroom/level site expenses, which do not vary by student), and costs which vary at the level of the individual student. All costs do not, nor can they, nor have they ever, regardless of institutional type, vary at the level of each individual student.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s promise that school choice and portable funding will contribute to equity: “The brief’s central premise is that adopting ‘student-centered’ funding to enable parental choice of schools necessarily leads to a fairer and more transparent system for financing children’s schooling…. (T)he brief is predicated on the wrong assumption that most if not all state school finance systems and district budgeting models… operate in a way that favors institutions (and adult interests) over children.”

“Finally, to the extent that the end goal is to increase choice, it should be noted that increasing choices among different types of operators, with different financial and student service incentives, and different institutional cost structures and resource access, tends to erode, not enhance equity.  That is, increased choice in common spaces often leads to increasingly unequal choices.”

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Indiana Privatizes Education: Daniels, Pence, DeVos, Bush, and a Red-State Tea Party Tide

In his fine book, the One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes Indiana—a state that became all-Red as its House of Representatives turned Republican in the 2010 Tea Party wave—as “one of the models of corporate-backed education reform.”

Lafer continues: “Between 2011 and 2015 legislators in the Hoosier state adopted new statutes restricting teachers’ right to collective bargaining, expanding both charter schools and vouchers, authorizing online education, lowering certification standards, requiring that teacher evaluations be based on student test scores, and replacing across-the-board pay increases with merit pay that is reserved for those with the highest test scores and often comes in the form of a onetime bonus rather than a permanent raise.” (p. 147)

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, covers this political transformation of Indiana in a fascinating short piece that you may have missed during the holidays. Burris explores the history of Indiana’s journey from solid, widespread support for its public schools to the undermining of that consensus by corporate leaders and politicians like Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.

Burris describes a 1996, after dinner conversation convened by Steve Hilbert—an insurance giant—at his estate. The conversation, led by Mike Pence, included Mitch Daniels, then an executive at Eli Lily, Fred Klipsch, a business leader, and Mickey Mauer of the Indianapolis Business Journal: “In the years that followed, three of those dinner guests—Daniels, Pence and Klipsch—would be major players in the quest to privatize traditional public education in Indiana. Daniels, who was governor from 2005-2013, would earn national recognition for his methodical and persistent undermining of public schools and their teachers in the name of reform. Pence would follow Daniels as governor, pushing privatization even further.  Pence would award even more tax dollars to charter schools and make Indiana’s voucher program one of the largest in the country. Klipsch would start and run a political action committee, Hoosiers for Economic Growth… that would play a major role in creating a Republican majority in the Indiana House to redistrict the state to assure future Republican control.”

Here is how Burris describes the transformation that had taken place by 2017 when she visited Indiana: “In 1996… there were no charter schools in Indiana, nor were there virtual schools or vouchers.  Neighborhood public schools served communities in a state that had always taken a ‘liberal and leading role’ in providing public education for its children. When I visited the state 21 years later, public schools were reeling from 15 years of relentless attack.  I found public schools engaged in fierce competition with each other, charter schools, virtual schools and voucher schools for students and the ‘backpack funding’ that came with them. Entire public school systems in Indiana cities, such as Muncie and Gary, had been decimated by funding losses, even as a hodgepodge of ineffective charter and voucher schools sprang up to replace them. Charter school closings and sandals were commonplace, with failing charters sometimes flipped into failing voucher schools.”

According to Burris, Governor Mitch Daniels led a compliant legislature to starve the public schools and create incentives for privatization: “Under the guise of property tax reform, Daniels seized control of school funding by legislating that the state would pay the largest share of district costs known as the general fund, while giving localities the responsibility for paying for debt service, capital projects, transportation and bus replacement. Daniels and the legislature also made sure that districts would be hamstrung in raising their local share by capping property taxes so that they could not exceed 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. The poorer the town, the less money the district could raise.” All this undermined the poorest school districts. “It also made districts entirely dependent on the whims of the legislature. General funding would become ‘an annual unknown.'”

Burris also shares what was driving Indiana’s political swing to the right—what was happening behind the scenes as the Michigan DeVos family began investing in Indiana school policy lobbying, and Florida’s Jeb Bush and his advocacy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, exported his pet priorities, including an A-F school district rating scheme that awarded low grades to the state’s poorest school districts.

In a major 2013 address, Fred Klipsch—of the 1996 after-dinner conversation Burris describes at the beginning of her story— credited his PAC with the 2010 election of a super-Republican-majority in the Indiana House which made possible the passage of a mass of education reforms in 2011. Burris adds: “What he does not mention to his audience was that the PAC of Betsy DeVos, now the Trump administration’s education secretary, kicked in a huge amount of the cash beginning in 2010… (I)n 2010,  the Hoosiers for Economic Growth PAC received $285,000 in contributions from DeVos’s American Federation for Children Fund.”  The DeVos family also gave and has continued giving,  “with their PAC’s contributing at least $1.29 million to the Hoosier PAC to date… DeVos family members have also made $1.6 million in direct contributions to Indiana politicians and political causes since 2004, and nearly $2 million in nonprofit grant money, with most of the money going to Klipsch projects.”

Burris concludes: “It is not surprising… that after securing a Republican supermajority in the legislature, Daniels jammed through an education agenda crafted behind the scenes by GOP power brokers. Nor is it surprising that Jeb Bush, whose education reform organizations were heavily subsidized by the DeVos family, would come to the state to give advice.” In May of 2011, Daniels and the Republican-dominated legislature enacted what Burris calls “the broadest voucher program in the country.” “By the end of his term, Daniel’s rhetoric regarding public education was openly hostile  Public schools were called government schools. He referred to attending a public school without the ability to have a voucher as an incarceration.”

Burris promises to follow up on this story by tracing the further expansion of school privatization during the administration of the governor who followed Mitch Daniels: our current U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence.

Educating Ourselves About Betsy DeVos—Three Essential Articles

Tim Alberta’s profile of Betsy DeVos at POLITICO Magazine humanizes the Secretary of Education. I encourage you to read it, but only if you also read two other recent articles—Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s piece on public education’s real purpose (that Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand)—and Jack Schneider’s analysis of what Betsy DeVos fails to grasp about why the marketplace cannot improve education.

Alberta traveled with DeVos on her beginning-of-school tour in September and has interviewed her on several occasions. He describes two principles on which DeVos has, “fought and funded a generation’s worth of education wars… that parents should be free to send their children wherever they choose, and that tax dollars should follow those students to their new schools.”  He explains that DeVos believes bureaucracy in the Department of Education “smothers creativity, blocks innovation, and slows change to a glacial pace.”

He tells us that DeVos blames her poor performance in her Senate confirmation hearing on those who coached her: “I think I was undercoached… In hindsight, I wish I had a whole lot more information.” Her thinking on this matter makes it all the more puzzling that in her seventh floor office at the U.S. Department of Education, “The towering bookcases lining the rear walls are nearly empty, save for a few scattered trinkets.”  Maybe we all ought to send Betsy DeVos our favorite book on public education—something to help her get up to speed—maybe Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities—or Mike Rose’s Possible Lives—or Anthony Bryk’s Organizing Schools for Improvement—or Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children—or Jack Jennings’ book on Title I, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools—or Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade. There is plenty of material to help her out.

We learn, not surprisingly, that her old school-privatizing friend, Jeb Bush, had the idea for her nomination as Education Secretary: “It was Bush who, in the days after Trump’s stunning victory, asked DeVos whether she had considered serving as education secretary—and who then contacted Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to recommend her for the job. ‘He was really the only person I knew in the transition. He was the best person because he was running it,’ Bush tells me, chuckling. The two ex-governors were on the same page: Bush had worked closely alongside DeVos to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Pence forged a similar alliance with her in Indiana. ‘He made it clear that he was already thinking about Betsy, too,’ Bush says.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, just reviewed Betsy DeVos’s recent speech at Paul Peterson’s think tank—the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This pro-privatization think tank featured DeVos, who adheres to a libertarian, pro-school choice agenda, as a recent keynoter. Eskelsen-Garcia distinguishes the principles DeVos described in her Harvard speech from the values endorsed by the nation’s largest organization of school teachers.

To DeVos’s endorsement of schools that seek to appeal to select groups of students who might choose them for a special program or service, Eskelsen-Garcia answers: “She doesn’t understand the concept of ‘public’ schools—schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight, or transgender. The mission of public schools is to provide opportunities for each and every student who walks through the door….”

To the Education Secretary’s comments that schools shouldn’t be overly controlled by government, Eskelsen-Garcia defends the role of government: “protecting our students and ensuring that they have the opportunities and resources they deserve. We must say no to voucher programs and charter schools that divert taxpayer dollars from the public schools…. We must say no when they are not accountable for how they are spending those dollars and do not comply with commonsense safeguards to protect students. We must say no as it becomes clear how many students in voucher programs are losing ground in math and reading. We must say no even louder when voucher… (schools) undercut civil rights enforcement by picking and choosing which students they want and which students they’ll turn away.”

Eskelsen Garcia castigates DeVos for complaining that supporters of public schooling want to protect a ‘system’ of schools instead of prioritizing children one-by-one as individuals: “Here’s what she doesn’t get: Some ‘systems’ are pretty darned important.  The ‘circulatory system,’ for instance, pumps blood and transports nutrients. The ‘skeletal system’ supports and protects us. The Secretary might not like systems, but they hold us together.”

Like Eskelsen-Garcia, who decries DeVos’s comparison of school choice to the growing lunchtime choices as more and more food trucks have been parking in front of the U.S. Department of Education, Jack Schneider, author of Beyond Test Scores and an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross, is fascinated with the food-truck metaphor.  He quotes DeVos’s speech at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants… But you know what—food trucks started lining the streets to provide options.”  Here is Schneider’s analysis: “In other words, a monopoly became a competitive marketplace and, as hungry staffers flocked to nearby food trucks, the overall food improved for everyone… The moral of the story: everyone wins in a system where people can choose.”

Schneider offers a complex analysis of the reasons parents choosing schools may not be able to make discerning decisions. Parental choice, for the reasons Schneider describes, cannot be counted on to improve schools: “DeVos maintains a relatively unsophisticated view of how markets actually function. The flaws in her vision aren’t just a matter of politics; they are a matter of fact. Start with the fact that school quality cannot be evaluated through a single experience—the way a food truck can be. Products that can be evaluated this way are referred to by economists as ‘experience goods.’ How much do I like this grilled cheese? Give me one minute and I’ll tell you. Education, on the other hand, is largely invisible and reveals its efficacy over time making it a ‘credence good’–more like a surgical procedure than a sandwich. It can often take several months just to get a sense of a new school. In fact, some of us who are decades out of school are still sorting through our thoughts about how much we learned, how positive the social experience was, and whether we benefited in the ways we might have wished.”

Schneider continues—explaining the complexity of education: “(E)ducation is a socially-supported process for cultivating human improvement—an ambitious and multifaceted enterprise that takes place over many years.  This grand scope presents a measurement challenge….”  There’s also a problem with attribution. A child may love reading because his parents read to him. Or her preschool teacher read to her. Or maybe there was a wonderful story hour at the public library. Or perhaps the child’s love for reading can be attributed to one particular teacher or a school as a whole. Nobody can accurately attribute each child’s learning to any particular influence.

Schneider describes another “principal-agent” problem: “Parents are the agents for their children, who are the principals who attend the school: “Such a problem occurs when one person (the agent) has the power to decide on behalf of another person (the principal) who will bear the impact of that decision. In a choice-based model, parents are the agents, acting on behalf of the child.  Yet is is important to recall that parents do not spend their days inside schools….”  Hence parents are vulnerable to all the marketing that is integral to school choice—over the airwaves, in brochures that arrive in the mail, on the back of city buses.

And, Schneider reminds us: “education is a positional good. While some of the fruits of education are absolute—students either know how to read or do not—its usefulness in promoting social status is completely relative. As a result, parents can be drawn into anxious competition against each other for comparative advantage, and in the process may overlook the issue of school quality entirely. To make matters worse, this competitive approach ensures that however many winners the system produces, there will be far more losers, even if quality is the same across all schools.”

If you read all three pieces—Tim Alberta’s at POLITICO, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia’s, and Jack Schneider’s, you will discover that Schneider’s concluding paragraph sums it all up: “Betsy DeVos may be portrayed by critics as an ill-informed billionaire naif. True, her knowledge of the public education system is incomplete, and she has revealed her ignorance on more than one occasion. But it must be remembered that DeVos is a hardnosed adherent to free market ideology. When she compares schools to food trucks, she isn’t committing a gaffe—she is communicating her dogma to non-believers. Thus, as DeVos continues to make her appeal, we have a duty to take her seriously and to think critically about what she’s selling. A choice is coming, and the future of public education hangs in the balance.”

How Serious Is The Threat of School Privatization under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos?

Over the past couple of decades school privatization has been normalized.

Here is Carol Burris, chair of the Network for Public Education: “The drive to privatize the public education system under the guise of ‘choice’ is well underway—and can be expected to pick up steam when Donald Trump becomes president.  He chose as his education secretary a Michigan billionaire named Betsy DeVos… who has said the public education system is a ‘dead end.’…. (P)ublic education has been the frog in the pot of water, as school privatizers and ‘education reformers’ have slowly turned up the heat.  Over 1 million students receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school , and close to 3 million attend charter schools.  Whether the adjective ‘public’ is in front of the word ‘charter’ or not, charters are at the forefront of school privatization.”  Of course 50 million children and adolescents across America are enrolled in traditional public schools, but that is harder to remember in the avalanche of rhetoric.

Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network reflects further on the way promoters of privatization have used language to cloud our thinking: “Education marketers have rebranded ‘public schools’ to mean any institution that gets tax dollars.  And the phrase ‘doing what’s best for kids’ has been turned into an empty PR slogan.  The operative political term of the day is ‘what parents choose for their children,’ which has become a de facto argument to justify any kind of education option—even if parents are being suckered into bad choices or are being forced into situations where high quality education options are practically unobtainable.”

David Dayen, writing for The NATION, warns that we are likely to see a rapid increase in privatization with Donald Trump’s administration: “Trump’s advisors all fall in a comfortably snug ideological range, with a dedication to doctrinaire conservative economic beliefs about tax cuts and deregulation.  And another area of consensus sticks out: the idea that government should outsource public functions to private industry.  In the Public Interest, a research organization monitoring privatization, has complied a list of 32 different members of the Trump transition team or formal nominees for top agencies who have either close ties to privatization groups, or demonstrated support for the philosophy.”

Despite that school privatization was not a primary theme of Trump’s political campaign—nothing like the wall along the Mexican border or the rebirth of coal mining or ‘Lock her up!’—some of the nation’s strongest supporters of privatizing pubic education are at the heart of the new administration.

For example: Mike Pence.

As Indiana’s governor, Pence rapidly expanded the statewide school voucher program originally passed in 2011 under his predecessor, Governor Mitch Daniels.  The original Indiana voucher program, as reported by Emma Brown of the Washington Post, was capped “at 7,500 students in the first year” and restricted “to children who had attended public schools for at least a year… Two years later, Pence entered the governor’s office with a pledge to extend vouchers to more children.”

Brown quotes Pence, from his inaugural address in 2013: “There’s nothing that ails our schools that can’t be fixed by giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach.”

Describing the rapid expansion of vouchers that Pence signed into law, Brown continues: “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients.  The income cutoff was raised, and more middle class families became eligible.  When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers, and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly. By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system… The state Education Department says taxpayers are taking on $53 million in tuition costs that they were not bearing before….”

Then there is Betsy DeVos herself and her record of a lifetime of working with the nation’s preeminent privatizers.  Caitlin Emma titled her piece for POLITICO on Monday, Jeb Bush’s Consolation Prize.  Emma reminds us of Jeb’s myriad school privatization projects in Florida and also across the states after he organized Chiefs for Change, the network of far-right state superintendents of public instruction.  One member of Chiefs for Change, Hanna Skandera of New Mexico, is currently under consideration as education deputy secretary or undersecretary—right under Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education.

Emma’s article is a Cliffs Notes summary of Jeb’s record and his personal collaboration with Betsy DeVos: “If DeVos is confirmed by the Senate as most expect, Bush could see his views on education—repeatedly ridiculed on the campaign trail by Donald Trump—given new life as she turns their shared vision into national policy.  For years, the former Florida governor and DeVos worked side-by-side to push ‘school choice’ policies that steer taxpayer funding to charter and private schools—which critics blame for undermining traditional public schools.  They served together on the board of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, to which DeVos and her husband gave large contributions.  The DeVoses also contributed to Bush’s presidential campaign.”

Emma connects Bush and DeVos in the development of Trump’s idea for a $20 billion federal block grant to states as an incentive to expand school choice through vouchers and charters: “One of Trump’s biggest education promises—a proposed $20 billion block grant promoting charter and private schools—was developed with input from DeVos’s D.C.-based advocacy group, the American Federation for Children…  Now the programs the two crafted together in Florida and other states are likely to serve as models for federal policymaking—indeed, they have already influenced Trump’s statements on the campaign trail… Bush co-founded Florida’s first charter school in 1996. In 1999, during Bush’s first year as governor, Florida became the first state to launch a statewide voucher program.”

Commenting on Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, Bush said: “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”

Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s policy-wonk writers on federal education legislation, published a piece in late December about another privatization scheme Trump’s administration could perhaps more easily push through Congress if expanding vouchers and charters were to face legislative roadblocks: “Generally speaking, tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit of some kind, in exchange for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to children. So, unlike vouchers, they don’t involve the government directly providing financial support to parents for school choice. Right now, according to EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation) 17  states provide some form of tax-credit scholarships for students. In 2015, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind, introduced the Educational Opportunities Act, which would grant a tax credit of up to $4,500 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations that provided donations to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that award needs-based scholarships to defray students’ cost of private school scholarships. The American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group chaired by DeVos until recently, applauded the legislation when Rubio and Rokita introduced it.”

Ujifusa explains the wonky reason tax credits would be an easier way for the Trump administration to privatize education: “To pass it, lawmakers could use a process called budget reconciliation that would only need a majority of votes in the GOP-controlled Senate to get approval.  That would mean such a program would be immune from a possible filibuster led by Democrats opposed to using the federal tax code to support school choice.  By contrast, budget reconciliation could not be used to make federal Title I money ‘portable’ to private schools.”

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has scheduled its hearing on the Betsy DeVos nomination Wednesday, January 11, 2017.  This post is intended to fill in some background on Ms. DeVos as you prepare to call your Senators.  One thing is very clear. Betsy DeVos and her collaborators to undermine public schools by expanding privatization have been around for a long time. They have been working together. They know what they are doing.

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:

Beware These Three Governors, All Republican Presidential Contenders

Campbell Brown is the far-right, former CNN anchor who has become an advocate against teachers’ unions and due process protections for teachers.  She has now founded a so-called news site, The Seventy Four.  Reporters for Politico call it a “news advocacy site.” There are, of course, questions about objectivity in Campbell Brown’s venture, both in possible biases in the opinions expressed and in the selection of topics to cover.  For example, The Seventy Four has begun broadcasting debates on the topic of public education policy among the Republican candidates for president. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, to my knowledge, not been invited.  The first of these debates, co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children—Betsy DeVos’ organization that promotes school vouchers, took place this week.  Not surprisingly, the candidates declared themselves devoted to far-right education doctrine, and the program was set up to affirm the far right opinions of the candidates who appeared.

It is my plan to concentrate more deeply on the race for President in a few months when November 2016 is closer.  In the meantime, however, it is important for those of us who share a concern about the future of public education to be very clear about the candidates who have significant records on public education.  Three of the Republican candidates—whose ideas have been covered in recent weeks in the mainstream media or in reports from organizations that support public education instead of privatization—brag about education “reforms” as the centerpiece of their records as governor.  This post will explore these three governors’ records to provide some balance to what you may have heard in the recent event staged by Campbell Brown and Betsy DeVos.

There is Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich.  In a recent piece at the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant covers Kasich: “Given the current crop of Republican governors bidding for the presidential nomination, it is difficult to pick which has been worse on education policy… But the effect Governor Kasich has had on public education policy in Ohio is especially atrocious.”  In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss summarizes Kasich’s record on education: “Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform: expanding charter schools… increasing the number of school vouchers… (implementing) performance pay for teachers… evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading…. Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil.  David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned… after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad… Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools—which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students—declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools…. If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked…. Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest-and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.” This blog has covered Ohio education policy extensively in regular posts.

Of all the candidates, Jeb Bush has the most extensive and damaging record on public education, as he and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have radically expanded charter schools in Florida, expanded vouchers, promoted A-F rating systems for schools, and promoted privatized on-line academies and the expansion of contracting for school technology.  This blog has summarized Bush’s education record herehere and here.  Recently Business Insider confirmed Bush’s boast at the early August, Republican presidential debate: “As governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.”  Business Insider reports: “Bush… was not over-selling his accomplishment.  In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.”  In an extensive recent report for Alternet, Jeff Bryant traces Bush’s expansion of charter schools across Florida, beginning in 1996 with the launch of Liberty City Charter School in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.  Bryant traces charter school growth across Florida, a history replete with closures and the promotion of  charters tied to key legislators. Bryant concludes, “Since introducing Florida’s first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as ‘the Florida Miracle,’ and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign.”  But, Bryant interviews Dwight Bullard, the current elected state representative of the district that includes Liberty City: “Bullard tags Bush for introducing a ‘plethora of bad ideas’ to Florida’s education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an ‘F’ label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding. ‘What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools.  Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down.  Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most.'”

Finally there are Scott Walker‘s ties to ALEC.  Brian Murphy’s stunning article for Talking Points Memo not only exposes Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin, but it is among the clearest exposes I’ve read of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobbying organization that the Internal Revenue Service continues to grant not-for-profit educational status, despite a long and courageous effort by Common Cause to get ALEC’s IRS status adjusted.  Murphy reports that Scott Walker has been one of the nation’s leaders importing ALEC’s model laws to his state, Wisconsin: “voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rule making on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform… food labeling….”  These laws “seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses. ALEC is often the reason.”

Murphy explains just how the American Legislative Exchange Council works: “Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics.  It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican.  And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members.  Together lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees—ALEC calls them ‘task forces’—to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken… to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives.  The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions.  ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.  ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members.  It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences.  And it doesn’t disclose its donor list.  Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures….  Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their ‘continuing education.’  Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions.  Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year…  (I)t’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures.”

Murphy’s article does not emphasize public school policy.  Murphy traces Walker’s promotion of ALEC legislation for privatization of prisons—the priorities of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, and most notably his successful legislative initiatives to curtail public sector unions and eliminate “the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits.” “Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike.  In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state.”  He has also expanded charters and vouchers and, right in the budget, imposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Jeb’s Foundation for Excellence in Education Discloses All Major Donors

In a January profile of Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate for President, Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post described Bush—who launched his own Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2008 after he completed two terms as Florida’s governor from 1999-2007—as a promoter of school “reform,” a disruptor, and a privatizer: “issuing A-to-F report cards for schools, using taxpayer vouchers for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, requiring third-graders to pass a reading test… encouraging online and virtual schools.”  Layton quotes Jeb’s goals in his own words: “fighting government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies… that trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”  Jeb resigned from the foundation at the end of 2014 in preparation for his Presidential candidacy.

While the Foundation for Excellence in Education has actively engaged in advocacy, it is a dark-money, not-for-profit, charitable organization that purportedly provides issues education but not lobbying and that, under current election laws, is not required to name its donors.  On Wednesday afternoon of this week, the Foundation for Excellence in Education disclosed to the Associated Press the names of all donors who had given more than $5,000 before the end of 2014. The AP reporters, Ronnie Greene and Steve Peoples, who broke the story, describe the disclosure as “part of a larger effort by Bush’s campaign to highlight transparency.”  Previously the foundation had revealed names of donors only from 2012-2014.

The AP reporters comment: “Big-time donors to a nonprofit educational group founded by Jeb Bush, disclosed for the first time Wednesday, highlight the intersection between Bush’s roles in the worlds of business, policy and politics years before he began running for president…  That donor list shows the circular connections as Bush moved from governor to education advocate to corporate board member.  Supporters in each of those stages of his career contributed to his educational foundation—which, in turn, sometimes supported causes benefiting its donors.  They include Rupert Murdoch’s media giant News Corp., GOP mega-donor Paul Singer’s foundation, energy companies such as Exxon Mobil, even the Florida Lottery.”  Officials at the Florida Lottery explained that, while the Lottery cannot legally make charitable donations, it did underwrite six conferences of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (worth $82,500) “to help raise awareness of the lottery’s contributions to education.”

One of the committees of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Chiefs for Change—a group of conservative state superintendents of public instruction—has actively promoted on-line education and particular products of education publishing and technology companies in the states where these officials were serving as state chiefs.  In some instances members of Chiefs for Change have served as endorsers for such products among their colleagues in other states.  Ed O’Keefe, a reporter who also picked up this story on Wednesday in the Washington Post,  adds that, “The Foundation for Excellence in Education… has mixed politics and policy by drafting education reform legislation, paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts.”  (Chiefs for Change separated from the Foundation for Excellence in Education earlier this year to become an independent organization.)

According to the AP report, Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor and a leader who has actively promoted such practices as closing so-called failing schools, opening charter schools, and evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, has been a major contributor: “Four companies and nonprofits that appointed Bush to their boards of directors or advisory boards backed the education foundation.  One, Bloomberg Philanthropies, was among the most frequent supporters, making seven donations worth between $1.2 milliaon to $2.4 million.  Bush served on Bloomberg’s board from 2010-2014.”

The AP reporters explain that the Foundation for Excellence in Education has also made strategic grants that seem to have helped secure contracts for friends of the foundation: “Bush’s education nonprofit provided $1.1 million in public information grants to eight states in 2013…. In recent years, at least nine charter schools and education-related donors to the Foundation for Excellence in Education won contracts in those eight states, revealing the mirrored missions of donors and the foundation.”

The foundation, according to the AP report, received grants from philanthropies and businesses known to be among America’s prominent backers of the privatization of education: the Walton Family Foundation, Wal-Mart Stores, Wal-Mart Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the News Corp., and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Corporate support for the foundation seems to have been viewed as a marketing strategy.  O’Keefe at the Washington Post reports: “A large number of contributions came from for-profit education companies, including Apex Learning; Pearson; Charter Schools USA; VSSCHOOLZ; News Corp.; Microsoft; Intel; and K12, Inc.  Of these companies, News Corp.—which has digital education properties—was most generous, giving six-figure sums in at least three years.”

The AP reporters note, perhaps with some humor: “While Hillary Clinton played a leading role in an organization that accepted millions of dollars from foreign entities, Bush’s group accepted money from just one international source: British-based Pearson PLC….”  Pearson is well known as one the three biggest education publishers that sell books, tests and technology to school districts across the United States.  It is the producer, grader, and data processor of the on-line tests being administered by the Common Core PAARC Consortium.  Pearson also competes across the states to provide the standardized tests that states are required to administer annually under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.  It also markets curricula and textbooks aligned with the tests it produces.

This blog has covered the history of Jeb Bush’s involvement with education policy here and here.