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.

Important SLATE.com Series Explores Need for Diverse Teachers in Diverse Classrooms

An extraordinary series of articles, Tomorrow’s Test: Race in America’s Schools, ran last week at SLATE.com.  The series, a collaboration with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, is made up of eleven stories “about America’s changing face as glimpsed through its classrooms.” The Columbia School of Journalism describes The Teacher Project as an annual,”ambitious journalistic effort to report on the next generation of American teachers. Three reporting fellows, all recent alums of the Journalism School, work under the supervision of a veteran education journalist.”

This year’s lead reporter is Sarah Carr, who explains the thread running through the reports: “If you want to know what America will look like in a generation, look at its classrooms right now. In 2014, children of color became the new majority in America’s public schools… We’ll have to overcome challenges old and new: how to educate kids who increasingly come from impoverished and traumatic backgrounds.  How to communicate with students who speak languages as diverse as Spanish, Russian, Bengali, and Tongan.  How to avoid mirroring the racism of America—our disproportionately harsh treatment of black males, for example—inside schoolhouse walls.”

This year’s articles sidestep the ideological debates about school governance. Each piece examines instead how a school district in a particular location is trying to serve the distinct needs of children and adolescents and grappling with what is, nationally, the enormous mismatch of white middle class teachers and the identities and cultures of their students. Here is just a taste of three of the eleven articles in the  Tomorrow’s Test series.  I urge you to explore all of these fine stories.

Miriam Hall describes a debate among the four Murray-Heavy-Runner sisters, all teachers in Browning, Montana, the center of the Blackfeet Nation, and home to Blackfeet Community College, which is partnering with the University of Montana to expand the college’s teacher training program to offer four-year degrees and Montana teacher certification. The sisters disagree about whether—to serve the children of Browning these days—teachers ought to spend time during their education off the Reservation: “(S)ome educators wonder whether tribal colleges… have the tools and expertise to train the next generation of teachers entirely on their own. And some Native teachers who left the reservation and came back say the experience and insights they gained while living away were invaluable to their work.” But, “This is by no means a minor philosophical matter; there are immediate pressures to consider.  Rural communities across America often face particularly acute teacher shortages, so it’s important for places like Browning to cultivate and recruit teachers…. (T)he Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s renewed emphasis on growing teachers who never have to leave the reservation brings with it great promise…. Native teachers have a unique connection with Native students: They know the culture and community intimately and understand the challenges of reservation life.”  “As a Blackfeet woman, Angela Murray-Heavy-Runner understands her sixth grade students’ complicated family backgrounds…. She knows cultural rules and taboos…. Like many native teachers, she’s aware some children and their families are distrustful of schools and teachers. In the past, many white teachers arrived only to leave within a year or two. Memories from the boarding-school era linger, too—echoes of a time when school was a place of cruelty, where their culture was systematically unraveled.”

Sarah Carr, the project’s leader, describes Why Boston Desperately Needs More Hispanic Teachers. Her article profiles Antonio Arvelo, a brilliant student living in a homeless shelter and lost in anonymity in a Boston middle school after his mother and siblings suddenly relocated to Massachusetts from New York.  His school discovered the “invisible” Arvelo only when his PSAT scores arrived—the highest in the school. But Arvelo encountered few Hispanic teachers, despite Massachusetts’ rapidly growing Hispanic population. “In Boston, Hispanics make up just 10 percent of the public-school teaching corps but a plurality of the student body, at more than 40 percent.”  “Ironically, many Hispanics don’t really count as prized diversity hires for the Boston public schools—at least not when it comes to the legal definition in the courts.  In 1985, U.S. District Judge Arthur Garrity mandated that 25 percent of the city’s public school teachers be ‘black.’… Most educators agree that Garrity’s order was necessary at the time.  But more than 30 years later, the mandate’s become somewhat outdated, particularly given the growth in the city’s Hispanic population.”  After he began a career in business, Arvelo followed a desire to teach and he is now working to make teaching an attractive career choice for Hispanic young men in Boston.

In The Color of School Reform, Alexandria Neason goes to the heart of what many believe was the ugliest part of New Orleans’ school reform right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005: “After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fired its mostly black teacher corps. Now its charter schools are trying to convince black educators that there’s a place for them.” “Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school system boasted a significantly higher share of black teachers than most urban districts.  In 2003, just 15 percent of teachers in large cities across the country were black.  In New Orleans, where nearly all students are black, that figure was 72 percent.  In the aftermath of Katrina, the school board fired the district’s thousands of teachers en masse as it reconstituted the system …. Between 2004 and 2014, the percent of black teachers plunged from 71 percent to 49 percent. And far fewer teachers working in schools were raised in New Orleans.”  Today 70 percent of new hires remain white.  Charters have recruited hard at Teach for America and other alternative certification programs.  Neason profiles Raven Foster, a black teacher and graduate of local Xavier University. After Foster joined the staff at a KIPP charter school, she became concerned about the scarcity of African American teachers. “Foster believes that some white teachers, however well-intentioned, were ill-equipped to handle the vast gaps between themselves and their students.  They often missed nuances in language and behavior.”  The legacy of the mass firing of New Orleans’ teachers is proving hard to overcome: “But at KIPP Central City, and throughout the KIPP New Orleans network, teacher diversity efforts haven’t produced such dramatic gains, underscoring the persisting chasm between the school reform movement and veteran educators—particularly veteran educators of color… Charter schools don’t participate in Louisiana’s pension program… (C)harter school leaders have considerable work to do when it comes to rebuilding trust with veteran educators in New Orleans.  Teachers, who made up a major portion of the city’s black middle class, had their livelihoods yanked out from underneath them at their most vulnerable; while their city drowned, they were quietly discarded and replaced… (O)utsiders flocked to the city to rebuild that which they did not know, without seeking the wisdom of those who had worked there for decades.”

In her introduction to the series, Carr concludes:  “As public school students diversify, qualities such as empathy, self-awareness, open-mindedness, and understanding are more important than ever in our teachers—just as they will be for all of us in an increasingly diverse society.  Teachers will need to have the capacity to serve not just as instructors but also as cultural brokers and social leaders, aware of their own biases, empathetic when confronting difference, comfortable with change… (W)e all pay a price for a lack of tolerance or understanding in the classroom.”