For almost 16 years, across two administrations of different parties, America’s teachers have watched federal education officials embrace destructive policies. President George W. Bush ushered in the era of test and punishment based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act. President Barack Obama entered office with promises of relief from unrealistic expectations and punitive incentives – only to double down on testing’s importance by favoring value-added teacher evaluations and to promote privatization through the charter school sector which has increasingly placed portions of our educational commons into hands avoiding public oversight. With a Secretary of Education under President Obama who declared that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to New Orleans schools because the recovery turned the entire city over to privately managed charters, teachers could be forgiven for wondering how anything could get worse regardless of who won the election this month.
After floating a raft of names – from former rival and now designated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson to New York City charter magnate Eva Moskowitz to former Washington D.C. School Chancellor and Patron Saint of Firing Teachers Michelle Rhee to actually qualified school choice advocate and Hoover Institute Fellow Dr. Williamson Evers – Donald Trump has settled upon Michigan billionaire and school privatization zealot Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education. Friends have asked me directly what I think about this pick, and I have frankly responded that if Ms. DeVos can accomplish for the nation’s schools what she has manage to do in Michigan by leveraging her fortune to buy her desired results, then we are well and truly screwed. Ms. DeVos has never attended a public school, never sent her children to a public school, never studied education at any level, never taught a day in her life. What she does bring to the post is an unparalleled zeal for turning as much of our public schools as possible over to unregulated hands and for sending as much public school money as possible to private and religious institutions. With her appointment, the Trump administration’s priorities for our nation’s schools are made crystal clear: to hell with quality, to hell with equity, to hell with everything except privatization.
As early as 2011, Betsy DeVos was well recognized as an influential if stealthy advocate for school choice, especially in the form of vouchers. Such efforts are always couched in terms that emphasize empowering parents and using competition to make all schools better, but the agenda has little to do with excellent education for all and much more to do with taking the nation’s $600 billion school budget and getting it into private hands. Having failed in 2000 to convince Michigan voters to institute vouchers, DeVos altered strategy and backed legislators and bills that favored vouchers and privatization in various states. Forming All Children Matter in 2003, DeVos quickly spent $7.6 million in the first year to get electoral results in favor of privatization. If you’ve ever heard a conservative politician use the term “government schools” instead of “public schools,” you have Betsy DeVos and her husband (and Amway fortune heir) Dick to thank for it. It turns out that slapping the label “government” on any publicly funded good is an effective way to bend public opinion against it.
The DeVos family was also deeply involved in repackaging vouchers from their original racist origin as a way to get white children out of desegregation and into an “only hope”for urban children “trapped” in “failing schools.” The problem with that strategy is that with years of evidence in from voucher programs like Milwaukee there simply isn’t evidence that vouchers do very much for their alleged beneficiaries – although they do manage to get public money into private hands fairly well. In fact, in Milwaukee, students receiving vouchers performed worse than their counterparts in the city’s public schools. The DeVos affinity for vouchers is not limited to secular institutions, and, they have deep and lasting ties to conservative Christian activists who see secular public education as an out and out enemy that has to be ended. Betsy DeVos has served on the board of the Acton Institute which has featured events by Christian Dominionist Gary North who is on record writing, without irony: “So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
The DeVos record in her home base of Michigan should be on great concern to those who see public education as a public good that should not be turned over to profiteers. Her efforts in Michigan and nationally aim to influence policies steering as much money as is possible away from fully public schools and into “competition” in the form of charters. The Michigan experiment has been especially woeful for public education as the state’s charter sector is stupendously unregulated and an eye-watering 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit management corporations that don’t even try to hide that they are self dealing. The Detroit Free Press reported in August that the state is sending $1 billion in tax payers’ money to charter schools but cannot be bothered to hold them accountable for much of anything:
Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.
And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits.
According to The New York Times, a 2010 law backed by a DeVos funded group pushed to expand charters, but DeVos’ group also blocked provisions that would have prevented failing charters from expanding and replicating. Since that law passed, the number of charters in Michigan that are among the state’s lowest performing schools has doubled. Another story in the Times illustrates the chaos this has unleashed upon students and families in Detroit in the name of “empowering” them with choice. Decades into the charter school experiment and more than a decade into the DeVos influenced school landscape, Detroit has 30,000 more school seats than it needs and schools go into heated competition to fill those seats in time to get state money determined by headcount. Charter school seats are concentrated near downtown while more impoverished neighborhoods with more school aged children have fewer schools – requiring those seeking choice to travel significant distances in a city of 140 square miles. Many charter operators get around the requirements to have open lotteries by layering the application process with burdensome paperwork, unusual enrollment periods, or by advertising in sources they know the city’s most impoverished families do not read. The result is that a great many families seeking charter seats end up at poorly run schools in Michigan’s unregulated environment and end up switching schools multiple times in the elementary years — an environment that Tonya Allen, President of the Skillman Foundation, compared to “The Hunger Games” for schools.
Perhaps so much disruption would be deemed worthwhile if Michigan had anything of merit to show for it. Unfortunately, such merit is hard to see even after so many years of DeVos favored school choice policies. Consider Michigan’s 8th grade results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both mathematics and reading. In math, Michigan’s students in 2015 showed no improvement at all over students from 2000, and while the gap between White and Black students did narrow from 45 points in 2000 to 35 points in 2015, the gap between students in poverty and student not in poverty was essentially unchanged in the same period. Meanwhile, 8th grade reading scores were even worse – with 8th graders in 2015 also performing no better overall than in 2000, but with the gap between Black and White students remaining unchanged in that time and the gap between students in poverty and students not in poverty growing from 13 points to 23 points. The lack of quality control and oversight in Detroit is so bad that even national philanthropists eager to promote school choice and charters routinely pass over the Motor City.
Policies and politicians favored by Betsy DeVos and backed by her considerable resources have unleashed chaos in Michigan schools, leading to a charter school environment that even some charter school boosters find difficult to justify. And the result of her efforts since the the early 2000s is a school system that isn’t actually performing any better than before she managed to leverage her fortune in favor of unregulated choice and charter school proliferation. No wonder then that, although she has her fans among pro-privatizing politicians like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, she is also regarded as highly dangerous from others in her home state. The President of Michigan’s state board of education said, “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren….Devos’ agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model.” A Democratic state senator from Deerborn Heights added, “The fact that she now is going to have a platform to do that on a national level should be of great concern to everyone in this country.”
If confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will almost certainly be in charge of whatever emerges from Donald Trump’s promise to allocate $20 billion to expand school choice in the form of charter schools and voucher plans. In his announcement of the plan, Trump even used DeVos favored code language by referencing students trapped in “failing government schools,” and he thanked Ron Packard, the CEO of the for-profit charter company that runs the failing charter school that served as the backdrop for his speech. It is almost impossible to imagine optics that better sum up Betsy DeVos’ record on education: coded language used to demean our educational commons, a for profit charter management company, and a school that is failing to improve students’ measured performance. In fact, the only person in the story likely to be doing very well is Mr. Packard himself who used to pull in a salary of $5 million to run the K12 Inc. family of for profit virtual charter schools (with an educational record so dubious that the NCAA refuses to accept credits from the schools) and whose Pansophic Learning is now the largest for profit operator of charter schools in Ohio. Secretary designate DeVos must love it.
Cynics – and even some optimists – might doubt just how much damage a DeVos led Department of Education could inflict. After all, the nation spends over $600 billion annually on public education, but only 9% of that is federally funded which is why Trump’s voucher and choice proposal assumes, very optimistically, that states will kick in over $100 billion additionally over the $20 billion from the federal government. The problem with this view is that while the federal government does not foot a lot of education money, it can unleash a hell of a lot of chaos with the money it does spend via incentives and regulation. For example, Title 1 funds, intended for schools serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students, reached 56,000 schools serving 21 million students in 2009-2010. Luke Messer, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who is a friend of Mike Pence and who founded the Congressional School Choice Caucus already suggested that some or all of the money for Trump’s school choice program could come from the $15 billion the federal government spends on Title I. Grabbing money intended to help public schools that serve the nation’s most needy children and turning it into an uncontrolled experiment in vouchers and unregulated charter schools is exactly the kind of project Betsy DeVos would relish. And even if she only got her hands on a fraction of that sum, nobody should forget the degree of chaos Arne Duncan managed with only $4 billion in Race to the Top funds at his disposal.
In the end, Ms. DeVos may be frustrated less by available funds and a willing Congress than by her own preference for pulling strings outside the limelight. As far back as 1997, she openly admitted that she donated money to Republican politicians in full expectation of getting a return on her investment: “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.” But it is a lot easier to buy the fealty of selected politicians and to hand them legislation to pass into law and to do so from the wings than the try to lead a national effort to convince Americans to gut their public schools. Despite 30 years of a relentless school failure narrative, Americans tend to rate their local school systems fairly highly, and parents with at least one child in school rate them higher still. If Betsy DeVos is going to leverage the promised money for school choice into substantial change, she will have to do something she has never really done – step into the sunlight and talk to us regular folks about why we should gamble our children on her ideas that have such a remarkably poor record.
I doubt that she has the skill set to spread her ideas to America’s suburban schools, but if Congress actually does give her a free hand with Title I, she will have the power to deal great harm to America’s poorest children. As Secretary of Privatization, she can turn many more of our urban schools into profit centers that enrich private interests far more efficiently than they care about the children within them. Expect more people like Ron Packard to cash in while our nation’s children and teachers suffer.