Betsy DeVos: So How’s She Doing?

Six months in, several writers have set out to remind us who Betsy DeVos is and to consider where the U.S. Department of Education stands under her leadership.

Writing in the U.K. for The Guardian, David Smith recalls: “(I)t is DeVos, America’s 11th education secretary, who is viewed by many… as its most dangerous and destructive since the post was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979. DeVos, a devout Christian, stands accused of quietly privatising schools, rescinding discrimination guidelines and neutering her own civil rights office… DeVos—who once called traditional public school districts a ‘dead end’—is accused of defunding and destabilising public education in Michigan by bankrolling school choice initiatives.  Now… she is trying to apply the same ideas to the nation, championing privately run, publicly funded charter schools and voucher programmes that enable families to take tax dollars from the public education system to the private sector.”

And, in a sparkling New York Magazine profile, Lisa Miller sums up the impact of Betsy DeVos and her family—longtime far-right activists and philanthropists behind right-wing causes. First there is the family’s role in Michigan education politics: “Detroit now has a greater percentage of kids in charters than any city in the country except New Orleans. Eighty percent of those charters are for-profit. The number of charter schools is growing while the number of students in Detroit continues to shrink, so schools pursue kids like retailers on sale days, with radio ads and flyers and promises of high-end gifts. Still, only 10 percent of Detroit’s graduating seniors are reading at a college level, and the charter schools perform better than or as well as the district schools only about half the time.  When last summer a bipartisan group of concerned Detroiters tried to introduce some accountability and performance standards to the system, GLEP stepped in and killed the measure.” GLEP is the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-privatization lobbying group founded and funded by Betsy and Dick DeVos.

Miller neatly captures who Betsy DeVos is: “Trump has hired other oligarchs to run his federal agencies, and he has staffed the Executive branch with people who, like DeVos, might have been called ‘lobbyists’ in former lives. But DeVos is a hybrid of the two.  Fortified by great wealth and strong religion in the shelter of a monochromatic community, she has throughout her life single-mindedly used that wealth to advance her educational agenda… She was raised to believe she knew exactly what was right.  And for decades, this certainty has propelled her ever forward, always with her singular goal in mind. But what’s right in the bubble in which she has always lived doesn’t translate on YouTube, or in Cabinet meetings, or on the battlefield of public schools, where stakeholders have been waging vengeful politics for years. This is what those advocates who had admired the zeal she brought to their cause didn’t have the foresight to grasp. Out of Michigan, without her checkbook, DeVos is like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”  Miller writes that Betsy DeVos’s long-time friends and allies—Campbell Brown, Jeb Bush, Eva Moskowitz—“have gone quiet, evading the opportunity to offer further praise.”

Examining DeVos’s record earlier this month, this blog concluded that DeVos has accomplished far less than everyone feared, although there is cause for concern that DeVos is quietly neutralizing the department’s Office of Civil Rights and delaying rules to protect college students who have taken out loans to attend unscrupulous for-profit colleges. But as far as privatization of  K-12 school education goes? Not much progress. Reporters who cover these issues in-depth seem to agree with this assessment.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s top reporter following federal policy describes a federal department that has struggled since DeVos took over: “(M)any in the education community were terrified the billionaire school choice advocate would quickly use her new perch to privatize education and run roughshod over traditional public schools. Maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so worried. Nearly six months into her new job, a politically hamstrung DeVos is having a tough time getting her agenda off the ground.”

Klein notes that a House budget bill neglects to fund the very dangerous idea of making Title I portable, a hot issue ultimately rejected by Congress when the federal education law was reauthorized in 2015: “Earlier this month, the House panel charged with overseeing education funding snubbed DeVos’s most important asks so far: using an education research program to push school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.”

And, Klein reports, “DeVos may not have better luck on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education chairman said.  ‘Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers… I think school choice advocates, and I’m one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community-by-community than in Washington  I think it’s more difficult here.'”

What about tuition tax credits, the other form of vouchers DeVos has extolled?  Klein explains: “The Trump administration has also hinted that it will pitch a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan, which could be attached to a broader effort at overhauling the tax code, has yet to be rolled out. And time is running short to get it over the finish line this year… One potential stumbling block to getting a tax credit initiative off the runway: There aren’t yet enough top-level political appointees at the agency to think through the policy and sell it on Capitol Hill. DeVos remains the only official at the department who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”

Michael Stratford at POLITICO describes the staffing delay: “EDUCATION DEPARTMENT HIRING HITS A WALL: The task of staffing the Education Department with fresh political faces appears to have hit a wall. Dozens of individuals have dropped out, frustrated by the drawn-out, rigorous hiring process. Those in the pipeline are wondering what’s taking so long. And fewer folks are throwing their hats in the ring, doubting whether the Trump administration’s pledge to dramatically expand private school choice options for working class families will ultimately go anywhere… A lack of senior political hires has failed to attract other talent, compounding the problem…. And the political hires now at the Education Department have way too much on their plate. President Donald Trump has only formally nominated two individuals for politically appointed, Senate-confirmable positions…”

Stratford draws this conclusion: “Amid the chaos, the Hill doesn’t seem interested in funding the president’s school choice budget proposals and it’s unclear if the White House will get behind a plan to expand private school choice through tax reform—a huge lift for Congress and the administration.  Folks who support private school choice are ‘increasingly pessimistic’… (a) source said. ‘There still seems to be people in the pipeline that could get through. But it seems like no one new is getting in line.'”

Does this mean that advocates for strengthening the public schools can let up?  Not at all.  As long as Betsy DeVos remains unpopular with the public and with members of Congress, it will be harder for her to undermine public education. It is our job to continue—relentlessly—to define the importance of the public schools, which are required by law to serve all children, meet their particular needs, and protect their rights. We must also take Sen. Lamar Alexander’s observation seriously: vouchers and tuition tax credits have had more success in state legislatures than in Congress. ALEC model laws are being introduced in statehouses across the country and must be carefully tracked and opposed.

Broken Record Betsy

I don’t usually agree with Andrew Rotherham, a former domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton, the founder of and a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, and now a commentator for Campbell Brown’s project, The 74, an online news service with a pro-“reform” edge.  Rotherham is a committed education “reformer,” a pro-innovation, pro-charter-school technocrat. But this week I laughed in agreement when, commenting on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Rotherham surmised that maybe “even asking her about the weather gets you an answer about school vouchers.”

DeVos and her husband and both of their parents control a network of family foundations that have made major contributions to pro-privatization lobbies and think tanks: the Council for National Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Institute for Justice, the Mackinac Center, and the Great Lakes Education Project.  For decades Betsy DeVos has been a proponent of school vouchers to support religious education and homeschooling. When a hapless DeVos faced the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her confirmation hearing last January, she didn’t do much to hide her disdain for public education.

But I imagined that just perhaps, after DeVos took over the U.S. Department of Education, she would come to appreciate its primary programs—funding Title I to support schools serving concentrations of very poor children—providing resources to pay at least part of the expense of federally mandated programs for disabled children through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  And I imagined that just maybe, after she learned more about the essential role of the Office for Civil Rights to protect children experiencing discrimination and bullying, she might come to appreciate the role of the Department of Education that she is charged with overseeing.  Naively, I dreamed that after DeVos made some visits to public schools, she might come to appreciate the dedicated work of the professionals serving children. For example, she visited a public school in Van Wert, Ohio, my state. When I read about the robotics program she saw in this small town’s high school, I was impressed. But I guess none of this has cracked the armor of Betsy’s preconceived beliefs.

On Tuesday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss called her column, This Is the New Betsy DeVos Speech Everyone Should Read. You may remember that DeVos went to an ed tech conference two years ago and decried public schools as “a dead end.”  Well, she went to another ed tech conference last week in Salt Lake City and said the same thing… and she harped on the failure of public schools over and over again. I agree with Strauss: you ought to read the speech, which Strauss reprints.

DeVos has one idea: parents should have the right to school choice. What can we do to improve education?  For DeVos, “This starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.  When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system where we can predict educational outcomes based strictly on ZIP code. The system we create would respect parents’ fundamental right to choose what education is best-suited for each of their children. Every individual student is unique, with different abilities and needs. Our education delivery methods should then be as diverse as the kids they serve, instead of our habit of forcing them into a one-size-fits-all model.”

Of course a system of mass education cannot be utopian; no public school and no mass system will perfectly meet the needs of each and every child.  But we expect our political leaders in a democracy to help define strategies for improving the public system they are charged with overseeing and for expanding the opportunity to learn for children who have historically been left out or left behind.  In this speech DeVos doesn’t connect her sole idea to any kind of practical plan. If parents can get a voucher, they will make the right choice, she believes.

DeVos bolsters her argument with a sort of rhetorical trashing of public education: “I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.”

Unpacking all the rhetoric in that one sentence would take more space than this blog permits.  Let me just point out that I have always believed the so-called “inputs” in public education are more important than the test-score mavens—who look only at the output measured by the score—acknowledge. Inputs in this case are the teachers and the curriculum and the daily schedule and the enrichments like art and music that are present in some schools and lacking in others. The inputs also include tax-based school funding that happens to be grossly unequal depending on how states distribute it. Usually poor students and black and brown students get a whole lot less of these inputs, and their problems are compounded by family poverty.  DeVos just dismisses these realities and instead returns to her sole idea: Parents will solve it all if they have the right to choose a school.

DeVos begins the speech this way: “Since I do have this opportunity to speak with you, I want to begin by saying it’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education. Why now? Because Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.”

Here is how Valerie Strauss herself responds: “What exactly does this mean?… Is that a reference to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most important federal education legislation ever passed by Congress that was aimed at funding primary and secondary education to help close achievement gaps? Is it a reference to federal involvement over decades in attempting to desegregate public schools and protect the civil rights of students? Is it a reference to major federal legislation aimed at protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities?  Is she suggesting that the federal government should simply stand down and stop trying to protect the civil rights and the educational opportunities of students and leave it to the states, whose inaction or misaction led to federal involvement in the first place?”

I urge you to read the speech and then read it again. Force yourself to unpack the language while at the same time considering that DeVos is describing a system of about 90,000 public schools across the United States that serve 50 million children every day.   Betsy DeVos compares this to cell phone service: “Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cellphone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work.”

DeVos doesn’t have a particularly practical mind.  She doesn’t concern herself with the little things like what her so-called solution would cost. It doesn’t seem to enter her mind that state education budgets in many places remain lower than before the great recession or that her favorite programs like vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts will take a lot of money out of public schools with fixed costs. It doesn’t seem to worry her that rapid expansion of school choice has driven the closure of public schools that anchored neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Chicago where school privatization has further destabilized vulnerable communities. Basic public policy concerns that worry planners and economists—rudimentary ideas about the opportunity cost and the negative externalities—don’t occur to Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is merely a billionaire heiress promoting her personal biases about education.  She has not learned to understand the system she has been hired to lead even though she’s been on the job for a while now.

Public schools are not utopian; they will always need improvement. It remains true, however, that a public system of education is our best hope for meeting the needs and, through democratic governance and oversight, protecting the rights of our nation’s children.

I Wonder if It Is Possible to Teach a Billionaire Heiress about Opportunity Cost

I learned about opportunity cost as a child, although I had no idea that was the lesson I was being taught. In the spring of 1957, my parents needed to replace our 1947 Dodge.  My sister and I begged my parents to buy a car with four doors, so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to get in the back seat, and my father agreed, finally.  But he said that my sister and I would have to pay for what he believed was an extravagant splurge by giving up our allowance for the rest of the year. I don’t imagine we paid for those car doors with seven months’ worth of our dime allowance, but we did learn that in our family where we didn’t have a lot of money, if you really wanted to buy something expensive, you’d probably have to give up something else.

Years later in college when, as an English major, I took Economics 101 as an elective, I was astonished to discover that economists had actually created a name for that rule my father insisted we practice in our family. Very early in the semester, my professor Robert Haveman, taught us the concept of opportunity cost.  He must have believed this is a very basic concept, because in his little economics textbook, The Market System, Professor Haveman describes it on the third page: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose…. The decision is much easier if family income increases, but choice is still necessary. The cost of the new item may be considered the loss of the opportunity to spend that income for other purposes. This is the opportunity cost principle applied to individual consumer behavior.” Haveman continues: “The same principle applies to societies because of the scarcity of means relative to ends.”

Betsy DeVos inherited a fortune from her father’s car-parts company, and I presume that in Betsy DeVos’s family economic choices were easier than in my family—without obvious lessons on opportunity cost.  Maybe there could be not merely one car with four doors, but instead several cars filling a garage with four doors. It has certainly become clear that, as our nation’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos doesn’t grasp Haveman’s definition of opportunity cost as the concept applies to societies—in this case to school finance.

It happened again last week when DeVos visited the public schools in Van Wert, Ohio. The day after her visit, she had an OpEd column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which she complimented Van Wert’s schools. But after a few paragraphs she quickly forgot about the schools she had visited and began pushing her one idea: parents in Van Wert need more choices.  Here is what her column said: “Van Wert is a good school district. It is meeting the needs of many students. Yet the parents or guardians of nearly 20 percent of students who live within Van Wert’s district lines choose to send their children to a nearby district or to a different option in Van Wert instead.  In doing so, these parents are seeking the education that’s best for their child…. Every parent should have that option.  School choice is pro-parent and pro-student.”  Ohio offers public school districts the option to participate in cross-district open enrollment, through which students can take their state aid to a neighboring school district.  Apparently Van Wert participates in open-enrollment, and some parents in Van Wert transport their children to a neighboring town, though there has been a huge argument in the Ohio press since DeVos’s column was published about whether 20 percent isn’t a highly exaggerated figure for Van Wert’s participation in that program.

Betsy DeVos’s column indicates, however, that she missed the “opportunity cost” lesson Van Wert’s parents and educators tried to teach her. Van Wert, a small town near the Indiana border, is different from the urban, inner-ring, Cleveland suburban school district where my children went through public schools, but we have one thing in common: Ohio’s problematic method of funding schools.  For all of the thirty years I’ve known this system, our legislature has been dominated by people who have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to vote to raise taxes; many of our legislators also take pride in being members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In Ohio, our legislature has set it up so that we do not have unvoted tax increases. All tax increases including school levies must by voted on at the polls. And… in the DeRolph school funding decision, the courts faulted Ohio’s school funding for being “overly reliant on local property tax.”  And… embedded in our state constitution is a local property tax freeze. Our tax freeze means that any school levy cannot ever generate more real dollars for a school district than on the day it passes.  If property appreciates in value, the state rolls back the voted millage to keep the levy amount flat.

This all means that when inflation naturally occurs, and the state fails to increase its contribution, parents in every school district must create and fund a political committee to go out and campaign for the needed tax increase. The levies sometimes fail, and the parents have to try again, and sometimes again and again.  But inflation keeps occurring and when levies fail, school nurses and librarians begin to cover several buildings, and students on high school football teams have to pay to play. When a levy finally passes, it is very often to get back what was lost—to bring back the librarian to every school library, to make football free, to reduce class size in Kindergarten back below 22 students. In this financial climate—the very definition of opportunity cost—it is difficult for a school district afford something new and glitzy, something like the championship robotics team Van Wert’s voters have managed to fund and that we all learned about last week when Betsy DeVos visited Van Wert.  I learned to understand this public example of opportunity cost back between 1988 and 1991 when I organized a grassroots, door-to-door campaign for three school levies—with 700 volunteers each time ringing doorbells to convince neighbors to vote “yes.”  Then in 1993, I co-chaired a successful levy campaign after two failed attempts. Across Ohio, school levy fights, to be successful, have to be constructed to pull the community together on behalf of the public—the community and all of its children.

Erica Green, the NY Times reporter who traveled to Van Wert to cover the Betsy DeVos school visit, listened carefully. While I know she does not have an in-depth understanding of the school funding complexities behind the comments she reports in her article, she captures some of the urgency of the parents and educators who described the dedication of the Van Wert community to its public schools. Green notes the community’s pride in having passed its levies. She describes what Linda Haycock, newly elected from western Ohio to the state school board said to Betsy DeVos: “Spending federal money or any other taxpayer funds on vouchers for private school tuition is looked on harshly… ‘really theft’…  ‘It’s saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it’s really going somewhere else.'”  And Green continues: “Van Wert educators said they believed their biggest threat was school choice. An expanded voucher program would be ‘potentially catastrophic’ for the district’s finances, said Mike Ruen, the district’s treasurer.”

Teachers and school administrators alike carefully explained what would be the implications for Van Wert of the federal budget cuts proposed by DeVos’s Department of Education. Green describes the early childhood literacy specialist telling Betsy DeVos about how any reallocation of Title I funding to support expansion of school choice would undermine a program that helps very poor children with early literacy. Green quotes the school superintendent telling DeVos, “We struggle every day to make ends meet.” Green reports that an elementary school principal told DeVos, “Our funding is the blood, sweat and tears of our community, and we are held accountable for that.”

The parents, teachers, superintendent, and school treasurer in Van Wert were explaining to Betsy DeVos the essence of Professor Haveman’s lesson on the public implications of opportunity cost: “Only a few individuals and no societies possess the means to obtain all of the goods and services they desire. Most of us have to pick and choose.” In Ohio, we already have some school choice and we don’t want it expanded.  Our long experiment with vouchers has meant that tax dollars are taken to support private school education. Charter schools—unregulated and out of control in our state—have created another drain on scarce public school resources. And, as we saw in Van Wert, there is also the option for school districts to participate in cross-district open enrollment. When Betsy DeVos preaches about giving all parents a choice to have the education services they desire, I wonder whether she actually understands that sending money away from the public schools to privatized alternatives removes essential services from the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

In a recent column in the Appleton Post-Crescent in Wisconsin—another ALEC-dominated state, where Governor Scott Walker and the legislative majority also adhere to the anti-tax pledge Grover Norquist has encouraged them to sign—Jane Parish Yang, a member of the Fox City Advocates for Public Education, defines the meaning of the public—“how a nation comes into being by shared events and shared values, and how, in our case, a community comes into being with a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ and strength from all young people being educated in order to become productive citizens. The founding citizens of Wisconsin knew that shared, democratic values from a public education open to each and every student would be the basis for the community flourishing because of that shared experience. But what would those same founders make of present-day Wisconsin, in which a segment of the citizenry rejects public schools… and wishes to segregate itself within its own traditions but at public expense? That is what proponents of so-called school choice are asking the public to agree to: we choose, you pay.”

Many Predict Trump-DeVos Will Privatize with Tuition Tax Credits, Not Plain Old Vouchers

Everyone is wondering exactly how President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s plans for expanding privatization of public education will play out. Two upcoming events may provide more details.  It has been predicted that the President will lay out his priorities when he releases his budget proposal in mid-March. Even before that, however, in a major address tomorrow to a joint session of Congress, he has said he’ll outline his policy priorities. Here is Politico commenting on what is expected from tomorrow’s address: “White House officials said that after a first month driven almost entirely by policies they could enact unilaterally, the joint congressional address will focus on work the White House wants done on Capitol Hill during the rest of 2017.”

The President and his education secretary have said they will expand the privatization of education but how that will happen isn’t yet clear. One member of the House of Representatives has already introduced a bill to eliminate the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act) entirely and redirect the money now spent on Title I, ESEA’s primary program, to a school choice expansion. Others predict that Trump and DeVos will expand the one existing federal voucher program in Washington, D.C.

Some have suggested that Trump will convince Congress to go back to tinker with ESSA and pass a program Lamar Alexander and other conservatives endorsed back in 2015, Title I Portability—the idea that each poor child would be able to carry a designated amount of extra money to any public school that child chose to attend. Title I Portability was never broadly endorsed in Congress, however, because it would defeat the primary purpose of Title I, which was designed to address concentrations of poverty in particular school districts.  Schools educating concentrations of children whose families are extremely poor face an overwhelming set of challenges.  In its excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the challenges for schools in neighborhoods where over 90 percent of children live in extreme poverty: “An endemic concern for urban schoolteachers are the students in their classrooms with extraordinary personal and social needs. Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. In such circumstances, a most basic need for healthy child development—stable, dependable relationships with caring adults— may not always be present… At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused….” (pp. 172-173)

It now appears more likely, however, that while Trump is likely to enlarge the federal Washington, D.C. voucher program, any program on a national scale will expand school choice through tuition tax credits.  Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post: “Is there enough support in Congress to close the Education Department and create a federal voucher program for America’s schoolchildren?  No, according to people on Capitol Hill who are familiar with the issue, though a pilot federal voucher program is possible. Still, Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice, and the Hill sources said this could come in the form of a federally funded scholarship tax credit program that would be part of a Trump-promised reform of the U.S. tax code… Scholarship tax credit programs offer lucrative tax credits to individuals and corporations donating to nonprofits that provide money for students to use for tuition at private and religious schools and public schools outside a student’s designated district.  There are now 17 states with programs that offer scholarship tax credits… including Florida, the state that DeVos has frequently mentioned as a model for the kind of reform she is seeking.” (This blog covered the range of voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs here.)

A tax credit plan would be easier to pass in Congress according to Caitlin Emma at Politico, “A federal tax credit scholarship program could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate.”  Diverting Title I funds, by contrast, would require an appropriations bill, that could potentially be filibustered and require 60 votes.

You might wonder how tax credits could damage the public schools, if they merely divert tax dollars to private schools without affecting already-existing federal public school programs. Here is how this would likely work out. While the federal government provides less than 10 percent of school funding, states are a primary funder of public schools, covering about half of school spending. Any federal tax credit program would very likely be designed to incentivize states to launch new tuition tax credit programs or expand existing programs. And establishing or expanding state tax credits would reduce the amount of tax dollars flowing into the states’ public education budgets.  Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188)

Jeff Bryant quotes Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center explaining more about how such schemes  work: “Welner explains, tax credit scholarship programs are a ‘money-laundering mechanism’ that inserts into the transaction a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO). Instead of taxpayer money being distributed directly to parents as vouchers, credits are issued by the state when tax deductible donations go to an STO. That credit then becomes scholarship money for parents to pay for private school tuition.”

Meanwhile, as Trump and DeVos move forward with some kind of expansion of vouchers or tax credits, in the NY Times, Kevin Carey just published a scathing critique based on three new research reports on the performance of traditional school voucher programs that have been operating for some time in a number of states.  Carey reports on a new study of the Indiana voucher program, created by Governor Mitch Daniels and rapidly expanded by Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor. The new research confirms that Indiana students who have moved to voucher schools “experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and no improvement in reading.  Another 2015 study, this time in Louisiana, documents “negative results in both reading and math” when students used a voucher to transfer to a private school. Then this past June, “a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. ‘Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,’ the researchers found.  Once again, results were worse in math.”

Carey concludes: “The new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program.  Secretary DeVos’s enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.”

These new voucher studies would not surprise Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, who, in their 2014 book, The Public School Advantage, explain: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (pp xvii-xviii)

Arthur Camins Warns: Don’t Let the Government Take Away Your Public School!

It seemed to me that Emma Brown’s huge article in yesterday’s Washington Post on Betsy DeVos and the kind of marketplace she says she’ll promote as Secretary of Education was a lavishly wrapped holiday gift for promoters of school choice.

Traditional public schools are never mentioned in this story that traces the disagreements among supporters of vouchers and charters. Brown begins by setting up the story as though teachers unions are the singular opponents of school choice. Of course, disagreement within the movement for school privatization is Brown’s topic, but she neglects even to remind us that charter schools today serve only 6.6 percent of America’s publicly funded schools.

Brown describes all the worrying by proponents of vouchers and charters. How will the Trump-DeVos approach affect the movement for marketplace school choice in general? Will Trump and DeVos ruin the movement by splitting apart the proponents of vouchers and charters? We hear from Robin Lake, who leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education which has created a network of districts practicing “portfolio school reform”: “Will the new administration love school choice to death?” We are informed by Greg Forster, a senior fellow at EdChoice that, “Two sides have now become this fragmented landscape.” And Howard Fuller, an early and long proponent of vouchers, worries that Betsy DeVos will wake up supporters of public schools: “(C)learly there’s going to be a lot of antagonism. People who oppose parent choice will seek everything they can find to say that that this is not a policy that can be pursued.”

Brown describes the reactions of promoters of publicly funded charter schools and vouchers to the idea that such schools ought to be regulated to protect the public investment and the academic needs of the children enrolled. Brown neglects the huge question of whether it is possible to impose oversight over a sector supported by powerful philanthropic political contributors like Betsy DeVos and those who are earning huge profits in the charter sector. Ironically Brown looks closely at Michigan, where Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist, has been personally involved in this question, and Brown interviews Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), a pro-privatization lobbying organization founded by Dick and Betsy DeVos. Naeyaert is described by Brown as saying that Betsy DeVos is a great proponent for regulation and oversight of charter schools: “(H)e disputed the charge that she advocates against accountability for charter schools. Naeyaert said GLEP—and, by extension, DeVos—believe in accountability for charter schools, as long as traditional public schools have to live by the same rules.” What Brown neglects to remind her readers is the well documented fact that the Great Lakes Education Project lobbied successfully to excise a charter school regulation agency, the Detroit Education Commission, from the Detroit Public Schools bailout legislation last summer. Naeyaert and his patrons, Dick and Betsy DeVos themselves blocked regulation and oversight. The Michigan senate and the governor had supported the creation of this agency to provide at least some oversight of charter schools, but when the DeVos family supplemented lobbying by GLEP with $1.45 million in contributions to legislators, Michigan’s house of representatives killed the plan to regulate Detroit’s out of control charter sector.

So who are these people who, in Howard Fuller’s words, “oppose parent choice (and) will seek everything they can find to say that that this is not a policy that can be pursued”?  They would be us—the majority of families across America’s towns and neighborhoods whose children, grandchildren, and neighbors’ children are enrolled in the public schools. They would also be the millions of school teachers and principals and counselors and school nurses who work with our children and adolescents. It isn’t fair to write off all of these dedicated professionals as though they are merely a lobby, though it is a good thing in these times when our society tends to blame and scapegoat school teachers that they do have organizations to speak up for their needs.

Emma Brown’s Washington Post article is best read in contrast to Arthur Camin’s powerful piece from the Huffington Post, Don’t Let the Government Take Away Your Public School. Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.  He has also served as a school teacher and administrator, and he is an outspoken proponent of the nation’s system of public schools.

In his recent piece he exhorts us: “Donald Trump has made it clear. He wants to take away your public school. Tell him, ‘Keep the government’s hands off our public schools!'” “In the fiery debates leading up the the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) the phrase, ‘Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare,’ became emblematic of the unnerving juxtaposition of citizens influenced by decades of conservative anti-government rhetoric and the public’s love affair with certain government-run, taxpayer-funded programs.”

Camins believes we must support public education despite its imperfection: “Many need improvement, but it is democratically governed public schools that have made America great—not private schools and not charter schools. We all know that we can love what is imperfect. We need to strengthen the marriage between public schools and equity, not a divorce… Make no mistake. Profit and exclusivity will trump quality and inclusiveness. Privatization means working class children get less and the wealthy keep getting more.”

How does the paradox work?  “In short, in the name of liberty and freedom, the modern conservative movement represents an exaltation of selfishness. Since the empowered want to maintain their privileges, the real intent behind, ‘Don’t let the government tell you what to do’ is, ‘We know best. Leave it to us.’…  A striking example is the growing campaign to shift federal and state funding from public schools to charter schools and private schools through vouchers. Sadly, the former has been supported by many Democrats, while the latter has been the long-held dream of, ‘competition solves everything,’ Republicans and those seeking to tear down our historic church-state barriers.”

Camins concludes: “We are at a crossroads. Integration, diversity, and democracy are under attack as unifying national priorities here in the U.S. and around the world… We have a lot to do to improve education in the U.S.  Inequity is persistent… Our great challenge ahead for education as with other critical features of community wellbeing is to find the language and solutions to mobilize people across their perceived disparate needs to find common cause. ‘Don’t let the government take away your public school,’ may be a place to start.”

New Report Decries Theft of Democracy in State School Takeovers

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is pushing back against the rush by state legislatures to take over the poorest schools in America’s big cities—in many cases to seize entire school districts—and run them without the oversight of an elected local school board.  Examples of such state takeovers abound these days from New Orleans to Little Rock to Philadelphia to Detroit to Newark, and recently, after the Alliance’s report went to press, Youngstown, Ohio. The new report from the Alliance declares, “(T)here is a different attack on minority  enfranchisement not addressed in the Voting Rights Act.  Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected governance is being dissolved altogether.”  State takeovers cluster in low-income, black and brown communities, the report explains, while across the United States 95 percent of school districts continue to be run by locally elected school boards.

In Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through State Takeovers, the Alliance proclaims: “This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority.  Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency and self-determination. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.” State departments of education, ill-equipped to run schools and school districts, are increasingly bringing in enormous charter management companies to operate the schools now under state takeover.  While school choice is said by its proponents to empower families, parents in these now privately-run, state-held school districts find themselves disenfranchised and without leverage to shape their children’s schooling.

The new report traces the history of under-investment in these districts dominated by racial segregation and rapidly intensifying poverty: “Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act (both passed in 1965), public schools have never fully served low-income students of color. Our antiquated school funding system that relies on local property taxes to support public schools embeds inequities based on race and class. When the rise of manufacturing in northern cities attracted large numbers of African American families looking for jobs, they were met with housing discrimination and redlining that led to segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools. When manufacturing left these same cities, they were thrown into decline. The loss of jobs, and later, resistance to integration led to massive white flight, further concentrating poverty in urban centers and communities of color. Over the past twenty years, systemic inequality and economic and social apartheid have intensified the challenges facing public schools serving majorities of African American and Latino students. Instead of addressing these challenges with investments in schools, neighborhoods and good jobs, the last two decades have seen the rise of an education philosophy that argues that poverty doesn’t matter. School failure is blamed on families, students, teachers, district administrations and local control itself.”

Rising achievement has not followed for the children in the state “recovery” or “achievement” districts: “These districts and schools have not seen a renaissance in academic achievement, an end to corruption or mismanagement, or financial stability. But they have seen other impacts:

Fragmentation of political power. State control removes the power to govern schools from a locally elected school board with the authority to set programs and funding for public schools. Charterized systems are worse—each school or network of schools has its own (private, non-profit) governance structure, policies and procedures…

Loss of community-based institutions. By closing public schools, removing them from local control or turning them into privately-governed charter schools, the connections between public schools and neighborhoods have been dismantled. In many cities, children no longer have guaranteed access to a school in their neighborhood…

“Increased segregation. State-run districts, by definition comprised of “failing” schools, isolate and stigmatize students and parents. Charter schools have been shown to exacerbate already-high levels of segregation in public schools…

“Financial instability. The creation of parallel school systems in many U.S. cities is undermining the financial health and stability of public schools, and resulting in devastating cut-backs in services, staffing and academic and extra-curricular offerings.”

National organizations that lead the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools are the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Gamaliel Network, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and the Service Employees International Union.

This blog has recently covered the theft of democracy due to state state takeovers of schools and school districts here and here.

Refuting the Myth of the New Orleans School Miracle: Children Lost after Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans almost ten years ago, as school was just beginning in the fall of 2005. Ever since, we have been trying to piece together the meaning of what happened to New Orleans’ children and to what was once the New Orleans Parish Schools—a school district that was abruptly dismantled in the late fall right after the hurricane and after a new law passed in Baton Rouge permitted the state to take over most of New Orleans’ schools.  A mass experiment in charterization was undertaken, launched with money from Margaret Spellings in the U.S. Department of Education with added help from philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. All the teachers and school employees were laid off and later their positions eliminated.  Today virtually all of New Orleans’ schools have become privately managed charter schools in what became the Louisiana Recovery School District.

The dominant narrative about the New Orleans school transformation has come from annual reports released by the Cowen Institute at Tulane that pumped out rhetoric and data to prove that the charterization of New Orleans’ schools was a grand success.  Last year Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network demonstrated serious problems with that spin in The Truth About The New Orleans School Reform Model:  “An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way the school administration in New Orleans—where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town—is now being marketed to the entire country as a “solution” for public education everywhere.”  Bryant believes the data reports that have wowed school reformers presented an unrealistic portrayal of the impact of the school privatization on New Orleans’ children.

In the years since 2005, we’ve had glimpses into other points of view.

A year after Hurricane Katrina, in the fall of 2006, Leigh Dingerson, edited  Dismantling a Community—a powerful booklet of reflections from the still scattered students who had been part of Students at the Center, a high school writers’ workshop launched in 1996 at New Orleans’ McDonogh 35 High School and Frederick Douglass High School.  At the end of that volume Dingerson concludes, “Taking advantage of disarray and inertia by local officials, and the willingness of the federal government to heavily bankroll its alternative vision, powerful interests in education reform took the reins in New Orleans to recreate ‘public’ education under a market model.  As the new school year gets underway, little relating to the K-12 educational process in New Orleans is clear or easy  Students are still looking for places to hang their backpacks; parents are still crisscrossing the city trying to navigate a system that barely qualifies as ‘public,’ but for the millions of public dollars that have funded its creation.”

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote about the New Orleans charter school experiment as the defining example of what she called The Shock Doctrine: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

In 2010, Teachers College Press published Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans, which shared the perspective of former Students at the Center as they reflected back on their education in New Orleans and what happened in the months after Hurricane Katrina.  Maria Hernandez in a short essay, “Worse Than Those Six Days,” writes: “When Katrina hit New Orleans, I was two weeks into my senior year at Frederick Douglass High School.  My friends and I were frantically trying to keep our school from closing.  Douglass was one of the lowest ranking schools in the district, so the state, using its accountability plan, was trying to shut it down or take it over… Looking back on the last few days of August 2005, I still can’t believe we spent six days in the Superdome…. I’ve lost my home, my friends, and my school.  I’m always on the verge of tears.  But the worst part of it all is that the public officials—both elected and hired—who are supposed to be looking out for my education have failed me even worse than the ones who abandoned me in the Superdome.  My family and friends have food and water and the kindness of strangers… I’m in the same situation I was before Katrina: but now I’m fighting to reopen Douglass and other neighborhood high schools in New Orleans and to provide quality education for people like me.” (Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, pp. 85-86)

Even through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the havoc that has rocked the lives of many of New Orleans’ children and adolescents, Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam managed to keep their writing workshop, Students at the Center, alive in several post-Katrina New Orleans high schools. It has been an institutional setting where students can feel safe and learn to express their sense of displacement powerfully in their writing.

The students who came back to Students at the Center were the lucky ones. This week Katy Reckdahl writing for The Hechinger Report shares a very different point of view in her story of young people who could not find an institutional setting to which they could anchor themselves after their families were displaced. In The Lost Children of Katrina (reprinted in The Atlantic) Reckdahl writes: “An untold number of kids—probably numbering in the tens of thousands missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina. Only now, a decade later, are advocates and researchers beginning to grasp the lasting effects of this post-storm duress… While some displaced children thrived in better schooling elsewhere, countless others had no time to put down new roots: Many low-income New Orleans evacuees spent several years after the storm in nomadic exile, moving among family members or in search of jobs or housing.”

“Early on, children’s advocates noted that serial moves and school absences were prevalent… While disasters are sometimes portrayed as events affecting everyone equally, children from more fragile families are more likely to be traumatized and to recover more slowly, said sociologist Lori Peek, who co-directs the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University.  After observing 650 displaced New Orleans-area children, Peek and her collaborator Alice Fothergill found that poorer children were more likely to be exposed to Katrina’s floodwaters, resulting in ‘challenges concentrating in schools, higher anxiety levels and more behavioral problems.'” “Lower-income children were also more likely to be displaced far from home, to move often and to encounter bullying and discrimination, Peek and Fothergill found. ‘The children whose lives were most disrupted and whose social support system and family networks were shattered were left with few tools or resources to pick up the pieces,’ they concluded.”

Reckdahl’s new piece features the children whose families moved around from place to place all year after the hurricane.  She profiles the Lee family who moved to Houston where the mother kept her adolescent sons home from school because she feared violence.  “When the Lee family returned to New Orleans about a year after the storm, several schools had reopened, but much of the system remained in chaos.  Devante Lee, who came back first with an aunt, enrolled in a school where classes were held in temporary trailers run by high proportions of temporary teachers.  His campus sometimes shut down for the day without notice.  For thousands of New Orleans school children, these experiences were the rule, not the exception.”

Today Reckdahl reports a bigger than usual cohort of young adults seeking the GED, students, she surmises, who dropped out during the post-Katrina chaos. She also describes a number of community organizations that have sprung up to offer support and stability to young adults still trying to get their lives together.

One of the serious problems with the data-based reports that have created the myth of the charter school miracle in New Orleans is that the kind of young people described in Reckdahl’s new piece became invisible to data summaries by falling through the cracks.  Nobody knows how many students moved away and fit right in somewhere else and how many like Devante and Devine Lee, now in their mid-20s, dropped out and disappeared.  Their stories speak not only to the chaos as homes were flooded and neighborhoods broken up, but also to the destruction of the educational institutions—once anchors for young people—to which they could no longer automatically return once they came back to a city now designed around school choice.

As Reckdahl writes, “Those who did early Katrina research wonder what happened to the displaced children they met.  Thousands didn’t return, and the population of children in New Orleans dropped by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010.”