As members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions prepare to question Michigan billionaire, Republican mega-donor, and school choice and voucher zealot Betsy DeVos, her prepared remarks for the committee have already been released to the media. The document is hosted by Politico according to Wall Street Journal education correspondent, Leslie Brody:
The remarks follow what you would typically expect from a controversial nominee trying to tip toe around her record of zealously advocating tearing down traditional public education even in the face of evidence of failure. It would be unrealistic to expect DeVos to acknowledge the wreckage that her policies have wrought upon Detroit Public Schools or to note that even philanthropists and foundations interested in charter schools and vouchers routinely pass over Detroit because the situation on the ground is too wild west for their tastes. We never could have expected her opening statement to acknowledge that her efforts have pushed Michigan into sending $1 billion each year into a largely for profit charter sector rife with double dipping and self dealing, or to explain why political operations that she funds oppose even the most basic efforts to exert oversight over charters that are failing. And it was not likely that her remarks would expand upon her brazen admissions in the past that she wields her family’s vast fortune to specifically get political outcomes that she favors, nor was she ever going to admit to the committee that her major goal in education activism is one part ideology and another heaping part destroying the organized teacher unions who tend to support Democrats.
All of that will have to wait for the questions, we hope.
That said, there are hints of her hopes and goals hidden in and between some of the rhetorical choices of the statement. Shortly after her opening thank yous, she will say:
“We are blessed beyond measure with educators who pour themselves into students.
“The schools in which they work are as diverse as the students they educate. In fact, all of us here – and all our children – have attended a mix of traditional publicly-funded and private schools. This is a reflection of the diversity that is today’s American public education.”
This is also a direct contradiction: Private schools, by definition, are part of the American primary, secondary, and collegiate education environment, but they are not part of “public education.” The only way one arrives at that spot is by philosophically seeing the over $600 billion spent on PUBLIC K-12 education in the United States as a fungible honey pot that can be shuffled from one provider to another with no problems at all. In short: Betsy DeVos’ life long passion of tearing down the public part of public education.
DeVos’ remarks then wax poetic about the private and parochial education of her family, and her visit to a parochial school that worked with low income families. According to DeVos, that visit spurred her to take action because she shares “President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve.” From there she launches into her core view of school privatization:
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof. Yet too many parents are denied access to the full range of options….choices that many of us — here in this room — have execised for our own children.
“Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise education choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children.”
The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child – perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet – we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative.
It’s really pretty simple.
I am unclear which parents she believes “no longer believe” anything. Certainly not the actually polled parents of public education students who, despite a relentless narrative claiming school failure for three decades, still rate the schools their children attend highly. Beyond that, there are the undeniable problems with the solutions that she has consistently advocated for during her tenure as a donor to school “reform.” The charter sector that she supports avidly does not do better overall than public school, and her favored charter school landscape is a nearly unregulated free for all with for profit operators – which invites in fraud and self dealing. Voucher programs have been tried in various locations and long term evidence says they do little to improve educational outcomes. And while she – and other reformers – makes a cogent point that people with means are able to buy their way into desirable education either through moving or through tuition, the school choice solutions offered to urban parents are not remotely comparable to their suburban peers.
Voucher programs for private and religious do not expand school choice because those schools retain the right to screen out students, and voucher plans have yet to be devised that truly offset tuition costs — giving a family a coupon and an application is not the choice granted to wealthy students who have every resource at their disposal from birth. The urban charter school environment is similarly flawed as a vehicle for parental empowerment. Jersey Jazzman sums this up brilliantly from a series of posts in 2015:
Charter “choice” is not suburban “choice.” Shuffling children around within the borders of their district into schools that have unequal access to resources and unequal commitments to educating all students is not the “choice” offered in the suburbs. Offering families either underfunded, crumbling, filthy public schools or charters that are not state actors and do not afford students and parents the same due process rights is not the “choice” offered in the suburbs. Requiring students to submit to excessive punishments for trivial infractions is not the “choice” offered in the suburbs.
This is right on the money: When parents of means seek public education options for their children they are pretty well guaranteed that they will find well resourced schools with experienced professional teachers, a legal obligation to accept and work with all students, and local governance structures that empower them to influence school policy. When parents in poverty seek public education options for their children they are told to choose between public schools that are falling apart and underfunded and charter schools that have no legal obligations to serve all students, are full of inexperienced teachers using scripted lessons, frequently use excessive discipline to drive away harder to teach students, and which are completely opaque in terms of governance and parental input.
This is the “choice” that Betsy DeVos will wax poetic about later today. It is a sham. Not only does it completely discount the actual public reasons why we fund a universal K-12 system – such as citizenship – but also it has never and can never deliver the equality of choices that DeVos and education reformers keep promising. Far more powerful tools such as progressive funding, housing integration, and alleviating child poverty would do far, far more.
The DeVos statement then goes on to vague statements about how teachers dream “of breaking free from standardization” and the like. However, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for relief from judging schools by standardized test scores. She then takes a stab at post-secondary with some critiques which are at least partially on point. Yes, she is correct that a traditional 4 year degree is too often portrayed as the only means of getting ahead. I’ve written on this before, and it is a difficult paradox. Pew Center’s research shows that it is increasingly harder to make a living if you do not go to college, but not because incomes for college graduates have been rising. Starting incomes have remained largely flat since the 1980s while starting incomes for those without degrees have collapsed:
So DeVos would be correct to point out that trades are “noble,” and supporting post-secondary options for students to learn skilled work should be encouraged. The devil, of course, resides in details not even hinted at here. Will there be a real effort to connect potential students to technical education and training for good paying jobs that do not require an advanced degree? Or will the be a flood of online and unregulated providers offering endless “microcredentials” without any effort to connect to employers’ needs? Hard to say but DeVos’ record in K-12 education suggests she really does not care if choice is effective and efficient so long as it exists and is making someone money.
Perhaps the biggest – and saddest – laugh out loud passage is one extolling local control and listening:
“President-elect Trump and I know it won’t be Washington, D.C. that unlocks our nation’s potential, nor a bigger bureaucracy, tougher mandates or a federal agency. The answer is in local control and listening to parents, students and teachers.”
Coming from one of the most dedicated proponents of using vast wealth to undercut democracy, that is a stunning proclamation. In 2000, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a DeVos backed school voucher proposal, and her family’s answer was to use backdoor influence and money to buy desired results legislatively. After her husband failed in a 2006 run to become Michigan’s governor, their efforts went into overdrive, essentially buying themselves a Republican legislative branch that will never regulate Michigan’s charter schools even in the face of embarrassing fraud. More and more of Michigan’s poorest students face a confusing web of school “choices” that cause them to bounce from one school to anther even within a single school year, and none of those schools are required to be responsive to their needs or to be accountable with how they spend public money. Now she will face confirmation in a Senate where she has personally donated $1 million to sitting Republican Senators and $10 million more to PACs supporting Republican candidates.
If DeVos and her family were truly dedicated to listening, they might have responded differently to sound defeats. Instead, they decided that they could simply buy the results they wanted. The result of that is that she will probably sail into her first ever job actually connected to public schools on the backs of law makers who owe her. Some Democrats like Elizabeth Warren will probably grill her on the failed education experiment she has wrought in Michigan and on the overall corruption of her way of doing business – and hopefully extended questioning on whether or not she agrees with some Republicans who are already talking about turning the $15 billion Title I budget into a voucher program. Savor those questions and get ready to use her entirely inadequate responses in the fights ahead – but that’s about all the pleasure we will get today.