Category Archives: School Choice

The Church of Choice

There are many reasons why various advocates representing different constituencies support school choice policies.  Some of them argue from a civil rights perspective, noting that parents with financial means are able to seek out school options for their children and propose that opening urban schools to parental choice gives those options to families in poverty.  Others come at the question from a more laissez faire economic approach, believing that government control in any sector is less desirable than competition among various entities creating innovation.  Still others are, undoubtedly, hucksters and profiteers who have seen the relatively new school choice sector as an easily exploited honey pot that is still too loosely regulated to catch fraud in the form of double dealing and self enrichment.  There are compelling and data based reasons to question the first two arguments – and the third presents an obvious problem that even many choice advocates do not support – but there should be no doubt that deeply held and sincere beliefs animate many school choice advocates.

And then there is whatever the hell Betsy DeVos believes.

There is no doubt that Betsy DeVos believes in school choice, and her record is one of funneling large sums of her personal fortune to influence politicians to embrace competition among schools as educational policy.    Further, DeVos’ record in Michigan demonstrates that she is unusually reluctant to subject school choice options to meaningful oversight.  Now that she is in Washington, her general attitude towards choice as a goal in and of itself is evident on a national scale.

Secretary DeVos raised eyebrows at her confirmation hearing when she skirted the question of “equal accountability” for all schools as poised by Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia:

Her unwillingness to commit to “equal accountability” was surprising to people who agree that public funds come with public obligations and that those should be governed by principles of equality and equity.  DeVos betrays no such commitment, preferring to let entities receiving public funds make their own decisions even if that means they are not held to the same levels of accountability.  This was thrown into even more stark relief more recently when she indirectly signaled fourteen times that her Department of Education would not protect LGBTQ students and students with disabilities from discrimination under all circumstances.  Asked about how her department would respond to voucher schools that refused to accommodate LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, she replied over and over again that “Any institution receiving federal funding is required to follow federal law.”  The problem with that response, no matter how many times it was repeated, is that federal law is either silent (on LGBTQ students) or not fully consistent (on students with disabilities).  Much like “accountability” versus “equal accountability” subtle differences matter, and Betsy DeVos’ inclination is defer to making more choices operable rather than to defer to making sure those choices are equitable and required to serve all students.

Secretary DeVos’ faith in choice is so firm that she has an alarming tendency to insert it into her remarks in various locations regardless of the appropriateness.  In February remarks after meeting leaders of a group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), Secretary DeVos could not help herself from framing them as “pioneers” of “schools choice.”  While it is true that HBCUs arose because African Americans were systematically barred from educational opportunity, the “choice” they represented at their founding was the ONLY choice available to their students and to most of their faculty.  Rather than properly noting the full force of America’s Apartheid Era and how it conspired to keep African Americans from full citizenship, DeVos said, that HBCUs are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”  That’s not praising HBCUs for their brave roll in trying to alleviate injustice;  that’s hijacking their history.

While many choice advocates clearly believe in the power of competition in a marketplace, Betsy DeVos seems to assign that marketplace capabilities few akin to magic without recognizing any limitations.  In remarks to a technology and innovation conference in May, Secretary DeVos lauded innovation in mobile technology and lamented why such forces have not been unleashed on education:

Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cell phone 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. Let’s be clear. This shouldn’t apply only to K-12 education — we need to innovate, reform, and iterate across the entire education spectrum. Higher education must constantly look for ways to update their models to best serve students as well.

DeVos, not unlike many other free market purists not contained to education reform, refuses to acknowledge some massive distinctions between innovation in mobile service and innovation in providing a public service like school.  First, mobile service is a massively regulated sector of the economy and operates under a myriad of rules to protect consumers.  In fact, most of the competition lauded by choice advocates of proof of the market’s power takes place within a regulatory framework, but DeVos’ advocacy record says she does not strongly believe in fettering a school marketplace with such rules.  In DeVos’ “free” market ideal, schools locally make choices about who to accommodate and where to locate regardless of what the most vulnerable consumers need.  Second, the ability to make a choice from a wide range of choices is integral to the competition she extols, and one of the reasons why we have anti-trust laws.  The electromagnetic spectrum is certainly able to hold a number of choices in mobile service.  Most of our nation’s public school districts would incur staggering travel costs for students to implement “choice” or would have to run a complex and inefficient system of schools too small to offer comprehensive programs.  Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, the marketplace is not and never was designed to offer everyone equally good choices.  One of the most powerful features of a free marketplace is the ability of customers to shop not merely among an array of choices that meet their needs, but also among an array of choices that fit their budget.  A person can buy a luxury automobile, and economy car, or even a used car that only works 70% of the time but serves his needs (most of the time).  The problem with applying that to public education is that nobody NEEDS the school equivalent of a 1986 Yugo.  They need what everyone else needs – equal access to a free, sound, public education.  I will happily admit that we currently are failing to provide that, but the answer to that challenge is not to be found in carving up our genuinely inadequate resources and spreading them without oversight into a maze of providers who are not equally accountable with the schools they compete with.  This is not a recipe for providing all parents with a rich array of choices that are all of high quality, and the results in districts like Detroit, where DeVos’ favored policies have ruled for some time, speak loudly to that.

Even though DeVos is so ideological about market forces, she is far less ideological about making certain that traditional public schools can compete in that market.  How else can anyone explain her support of the education budget proposal that is set to slash over $10 billion from needed after school programs, teacher training, and grants and loans for students because in her estimation the budget “returns” control to states and gives parents, you guessed it, choice?  In that same hearing, DeVos avoided a question about a religious school in Indiana that gets voucher funds but will not admit children of same sex couples, saying only “The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions…Too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”  It should be noted that this is a budget that even is getting side-eyed by school choice friendly venues.  Campbell Brown’s reform advocacy site noted that the “winners” in the Trump education budget are school choice and….Secretary DeVos’ security detail, while losers include college students, special populations, technical education, and the Office for Civil Rights.

Secretary DeVos believes in school choice in, quite literally, the worst way.  She ascribes competition and the free market with powers it does not have when it comes to creating change in a core democratic institution.  She is hostile to oversight and equal accountability for the variety of privately run/publicly funded organizations she wants to see proliferate.  She is indifferent to whether or not those organizations welcome all students who seek them out.  She has no qualms about traditional public schools, along with the families that choose them, being entirely disadvantaged in her marketplace disruption.  She is willing to frame literally anything, even schools created in response to Apartheid, as an example of “choice”.  Not even the evidence of how badly awry her efforts in Michigan have gone can shake her.  School choice advocates may arrive at their support by many means, but Betsy DeVos has elevated it to near religious status.  She cannot be reasoned out of her positions largely because she never reasoned herself into them.

 

 

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Filed under Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Funding, politics, School Choice

How Betsy DeVos Could Fail

Betsy DeVos has been Secretary of Education for less than three weeks, but her tenure as the custodian of federal education law and policy promises to be as stormy as her confirmation process.  According to this summary from The Washington Post, Secretary DeVos managed to, in a few weeks, insult teachers at a middle school, bashed protesters, claimed she would be fine if her department was shut down by Congress, complained about critics wanting to “make her life a living hell,” did not participate in a scheduled Twitter chat for teachers, suggested that schools are supposed to be able to compensate for all home problems, needed U.S. marshals to protect her during a school visit, demonstrated little understanding of the Common Core State Standards, and signaled her number one priority is any form of schooling other than traditional public schools.

Additionally, insider accounts says that DeVos was opposed to the immediate roll back of Obama administration guidelines protecting transgender students, but she was bullied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions into supporting the decisionIn an interview with Axios, Secretary DeVos confirmed that she would not mind if Congress put her out of work by ending the department, and she confirmed her enthusiasm for different “models” of education:

“I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”

It was in an interview with columnist Cal Thomas that DeVos complained about protesters and where she suggested that lack of “character education” was partially to blame for lagging achievement in schools.  In her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, she joked that she was “the first person” to tell Senator Bernie Sanders that there was “no such thing as free lunch” – despite the ironic fact that federal law does actually provide free lunches for millions of public school students – and she accused the American Professoriate of more or less brainwashing our students.

It is therefore understandable if advocates for American public education are terrified.  Betsy DeVos is absolutely, almost religiously, dedicated to “disrupting” the public school system, and her record of political advocacy shows that she has little regard for the impacts of her preferred reforms and sees them as a goal unto themselves. With the force of federal education law and spending behind her, and with a Congress eager to abet her efforts, there is a great deal of disruption that she can manage.  Stories from New Orleans and Detroit as well as other cities where charters and privatization have had significant impact with little oversight should serve as cautionary tales for teachers, parents, and students alike: there will be a full frontal assault on the very assumption that compulsory education is a public good serving any public function at all.

But it is also very likely going to fail.  That isn’t to say that there will not be a lot of disruption; there will be.  And that is not to say that a lot of schools and classrooms will not become more uncertain and stressful places; that will happen.  But it is to say that the public school system in America is a lot more resilient than someone like Betsy DeVos, who called it “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market…. a monopoly, a dead end,” can understand.  Like Arne Duncan before her, I strongly suspect that Secretary DeVos will struggle to coordinate influence across a vast and diffuse education system that has overlapping and competing stakeholders unwilling to simply take orders and march in unison towards one goal.  I see three potential stumbling blocks that will ultimately limit what DeVos is able to accomplish:

1. Her Reach Will Exceed Her Grasp

Congressional Republicans may very well give Betsy DeVos what she has always dreamed of: an opportunity to shovel huge swaths of American education over to private service providers.  Steve King of Iowa has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would essentially gut the federal role in public education.  H.R. 610, which has only been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce so far, is written to “distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers” and to “repeal a certain rule relating to nutritional standards in schools (because OF COURSE it does)”.  Representative King and his co-sponsors propose to eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and to send all federal funds to states as block grants that can be used for eligible students to attend any private school or for families that choose to home school.  States will only receive this money if they comply with voucher program requirements and if they make it “lawful” for any parents to enroll their child in any public or private school or to home school them.  For added measure, Representative King appears intent to do away with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature initiative on children’s health by doing away with nutritional guidance on school lunches…I’m guessing the makers of sawdust based breakfast cereals and lunch “meats” have been hurting too much.

This would gut the federal role in assisting states and communities to provide fair and equitable education for all students, reducing Washington’s role to handing out bundles of coupons states would distribute to parents to pass through to private education operators.  In any normal political climate, I would assume that the bill was dead on arrival, but given current leadership of the House of Representatives, Steve King’s popularity with the voters that put Donald Trump in office, and the leadership in the Executive Branch, I would not bet against some version of this bill making it to the floor of the House.  Even if H.R. 610 fails to make it through, other ideas are floating in Congress, such as a suggestion from the “School Choice Caucus” that some or all of the $15 billion spent on Title I could be turned into a school choice fund.  Knowing DeVos’ zeal for school vouchers, it is easy to imagine her applying leverage from a bill like that or even applying leverage to existing federal funds to push states into opening more and more school choice schemes even without Steve King’s bill.

A recent history lesson would do Secretary DeVos some good if she were inclined to learn lessons about reaching too far too fast in federal education.  For example, Bill Gates probably thought he had it all lined up:  He had a Secretary of Education open to his technocratic approach to education reform.  He had the National Governors Association on board with adopting standards across the states.  He had the people he liked and who had convinced him to back the project writing the standards.  He would soon have the federal government using a grant competition and waivers to encourage states to adopt those standards, to sign up for shared standardized exams, and to use test score data to rate teacher effectiveness.  In short order, the federal government would offer massive grants to multi-state testing consortia to design the first cross-state accountability exams. To wrap it all up with a bow, he had 100s of millions of dollars he was willing to pump into the effort.

And we all know how that turned out.

Fans of the Common Core and the associated testing and teacher evaluations would probably like to chalk up all resistance to the same forces that reflexively assaulted anything done by President Obama, and to be sure, if you go to Twitter and searched #commiecore you will see what they mean.  But that is only explanatory to a degree.  A lot of the backlash to the reform efforts that rolled into schools was based on a massively disruptive set of interconnected policies.  Common standards informed high stakes assessments that refocused the curriculum, and teacher evaluations tied to student growth on those exams meant no classroom could avoid seeing test scores as goals in and of themselves.  Even if the standards themselves were universally recognized as high quality – and they were not – driving disruptive reforms into nearly every classroom in the country so quickly and with so little public discussion about what was happening and why was guaranteed to foment backlash.  Teachers had little to no time to learn about and understand the standards or to develop their own critiques.  Quality materials to support the new standards were in short supply.  Test based incentives increased urgency and narrowed teaching options.  Parents turned around to discover that people were trying to rejigger most of the country’s schools without bothering to talk to them about it.  And when they talked about their frustration in public, the Secretary of Education said  they were “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

This is the kind of disrespect and dismissal that has been sadly common place for parents of color for decades now.  Those communities frequently have control of their schools taken away from them by distant state governments, have suffered the consequences of No Child Left Behind which labeled their schools failures without doing anything substantive to help them, and then made them choose between charter schools that are well funded but might not accommodate their children and public schools that are underfunded and neglected.  But that level of being dictated to and told to like it or go pound sand is not typical in suburban schools whose parents both expect and demand access to local decision makers and who believe their schools were serving their needs before any of this arrived.  That is not the kind of environment you “disrupt” without creating massive backlash.

Today, Common Core is not exactly dead, but it also isn’t getting invited to any parties.  Formerly supportive governors dance away from the standards (even if they do little to change them), while one of the testing consortia struggles to retain the few remaining states.  While variations and remnants of this effort are likely to survive, the technocrats’ dream of a coordinated system of state standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations is pretty much off the table.

Secretary DeVos looks to be on a similar path, and Congress is very likely to give her a pool of money to use to her heart’s content which, if history is any judge, is to set up as many alternatives to public schools as she can without regard to their quality or impact on district schools.  If even a significant portion of Title I money is turned into a voucher program, DeVos will have leverage on every state to increase school choice policies dramatically, even in places that receive only small amounts of Title I funding.  Imagine the reaction of a community that finds out that pep band has been canceled to cover the transportation costs of children traveling to parochial schools in neighboring districts and you have some idea of how many Congressional Republicans will just stop meeting with constituents altogether.  Like Arne Duncan before her, Betsy DeVos is in a hurry, and, having pushed for unregulated privatization and vouchers for decades regardless of what people actually want, it is impossible to imagine that she will not reach for whatever she can as fast as she can – with predictable consequences.  My biggest fear is not that Secretary DeVos will be able to bend the entire school system to her privatized will but that the influential communities will beat back her efforts and call it a day, forgetting that what offended them has been the unjust norm for families of color for years.

2. See You In Court

Trump’s administration landed in court, on the losing side, almost immediately after implementing its travel ban, and there is no reason to believe that lawsuits won’t be filed almost immediately if Secretary DeVos moves on her favored policies. Two legal fronts will be ripe for action – First Amendment grounds and state constitutional grounds.

Betsy DeVos loves vouchers.  She and her family tried to get Michigan to adopt them in 2000, only to face overwhelming opposition followed by her husband’s failed bid for governor.  Her tactic following that loss was to systematically buy the political system in Michigan and settle for unleashing a chaotic flood of unregulated charter schools on the state.  The DeVos family also made efforts to blur the boundaries between church and state, and one of her ultimate goals is to use public money to advance “God’s Kingdom” by helping religious education:

But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2.39 million to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s kingdom” through education.

It would be out of her character to resist funneling federal dollars set aside for school vouchers to religious schools.  The effort might be slow at first, getting the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, but even a small, “experimental” voucher program for religious education would be an immediate First Amendment case arguing that the federal government is forbidden from “establishing” religion.

Another, more interesting front, would be lawsuits filed in both state and federal courts arguing that DeVos led reform efforts would violate state constitutions.  While the federal role in public education is completely undefined in the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions are full of language obligating state governments’ support of public schools.  The language varies, but there are common themes such as states needing to establish “thorough and efficient” school systems, setting up systems that are “general” and “free”, securing “the people the advantages and opportunities of education,” and even ringing endorsements of public schools as promoters of democracy.

Betsy DeVos’ favorite school reforms arguably violate all of those principles, and efforts to impose them nationally could force states to violate their own constitutions.  There is nothing “thorough and efficient” about the chaotic system of unregulated charter schools that DeVos’ advocacy supports in Detroit.  DeVos mentioned expanding virtual school choice options, but there is mounting evidence that such schools perform poorly and disproportionately enroll lower income students – expanding them would hardly meet state’s constitutional obligations.  There is plenty of evidence by now on the impact of school vouchers on school quality, but that evidence does not support expanding them.  Some state voucher programs, such as Indiana’s under Mike Pence, contribute to further segregation in public schools, violating the notion of schools as instruments of democracy:

According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.

Squaring outcomes like these with the lofty language of various state constitutional obligations for public education is going to be difficult, and a DeVos led effort to make her style of unregulated, for-profit charter and virtual charter schools coupled with unregulated school vouchers funneling public cash to private and religious schools is not going to go unchallenged in court.

3. Good Help Is Hard To Find

Betsy DeVos has never had a real job in her life.  She was born into money, and married into more money.  She is exceptionally skilled at leveraging that fortune to influence politicians to do what she wants them to do, but that is not a skill set that allows you to run an agency with 4,400 direct employees and an annual budget of $68 billion.  Like every Cabinet Secretary, even those with vastly more experience than she has, Betsy DeVos is going to need help to implement much of anything.

Unfortunately for DeVos – and perhaps fortunately for our nation’s schools – she reports to a boss who loves chaos and sees confusion as his tool to dominate others.  Further, the Trump White House is demanding complete loyalty to Trump from all appointees, gumming up the works of finding qualified deputies and assistants to keep the U.S. Department of Education running.  This is no easy task considering that Republicans with actual experience running government programs lined up to vocally oppose Trump during the election, and school choice Democrats who might have been willing to work for, say, a President Kasich or Bush wouldn’t touch this administration with 10,000 foot pole.  Like Cabinet appointees in the State, Defense, and Treasury departments, Betsy DeVos is not on track to have a full staff any time soon.

This isn’t necessarily bad.  Without a staff of knowledgeable and skilled deputy and assistant secretaries able to implement new programs and revise existing regulations, the department will be on cruise control as the non-political employees keep the day to day operations working without clear directions to change anything.  In the case of a DOE tasked with making Betsy DeVos’ vision of American public education a reality, incompetence is actually our friend.

The upcoming ride will be rough, but, if everyone remains vigilant and vocal, DeVos is going to fail.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Drumpf, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

Vouchers, and Growth Scores, and Bears, Oh My!

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s designated nominee for Secretary of Education, appeared before the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions late Tuesday afternoon.  Before I comment further, here is an obligatory picture of a grizzly bear:

grizzly-sow-101

This is inspired by one of the oddest interactions of her hearing when Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut asked DeVos if she believed that guns belonged in public schools, leading to this exchange:

This was her response to Chris Murphy.  Of Connecticut.  Whose constituents endured one of the most heart breaking and devastating attacks of violence visited upon a single school in American history.  Guns in school, as a matter of principle, should be left to locales because – grizzly bears.

Just as a matter of record: in testimony that was riddled with evasions and factual errors, DeVos’ supposition about guns and grizzly bears was also wrong.  According to Politifact, Wyoming bars guns from public schools, and wildlife experts note that anti-bear spray is most likely better than a gun for most people who might confront a bear.

the-more-you-know

While the Grizzly Bear Gun Hypothesis was a humorous head scratching moment Tuesday evening, it was nowhere near the only one.  As could be expected, Republican Senators opted for extreme softball questions, and, disappointingly, Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander, himself a former Secretary of Education, denied repeated requests for extending time or holding a follow up hearing.  Democrats used their limited time to grill the nominee on a variety of questions about education policy, her own background as a wealthy donor to conservative candidates, and whether or not she would commit to not gutting public schools and enforcing federal education law.  In all of these exchanges, DeVos had only two modes of response.  One was slippery as an eel trying to escape from a net.  The other was woefully unprepared to demonstrate the most basic knowledge of federal education policy and how it impacts schools.  On issue after issue, DeVos was unable to articulate cogent responses that she would have known if she had spent even three days on the job as a classroom teacher, as a building or district administrator, or as an elected official with jurisdiction over school policy.

There is no other conclusion to reach:  Betsy DeVos is woefully unqualified to be Secretary of Education in the United States of America, and her confirmation puts all schools and students who rely upon the competent administration of the Department of Education at risk.

The evasions began fairly early when Senator Murray of Washington tried to pin down DeVos on potential conflicts of interest.  This is a matter of obvious concern as the nominee had still not completed her ethics review paperwork as of Monday, and her family has vast holdings and investments.  However, when the Senator tried to pin her down, this was the response:

SEN. MURRAY: WE KNOW FROM PRESS REPORTS THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAVE INVESTED IN THE EDUCATION INDUSTRY, INCLUDING INVESTMENTS IN A STUDENT LOAN REFINANCING COMPANY AND K12 INC., A CHAIN OF FOR PROFIT ONLINE CHARTER SCHOOLS. YOU TOLD THE COMMITTEE YOU WOULD SEVER TIES WITH THOSE FIRMS, AND YOU ALSO SAID HE WOULD INTEND TO RETURN TO THE BUSINESSES WHEN YOU LEAVE PUBLIC SERVICE. HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FROM PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP’S ARRANGEMENT?

DEVOS: SENATOR, FIRST OF ALL, LET ME BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT ANY CONFLICTS. WHERE CONFLICTS ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE RESOLVED. I WILL NOT BE CONFLICTED, PERIOD. I COMMIT THAT TO YOU WELL. — YOU ALL. WITH RESPECT TO THE ONES YOU CITED, ONE OF THE ONES WE WERE AWARE OF AS WE ENTERED THE PROCESS, THAT IS IN THE PROCESS OF BEING DIVESTED. IF THERE ARE ANY OTHERS THAT ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE APPROPRIATELY DIVESTED AS WELL.

SEN. MURRAY: FROM YOUR ANSWER, I ASSUME THAT YOUR AND YOUR FAMILY INTEND TO FOREGO ALL INVESTMENTS IN EDUCATION COMPANIES FROM NOW ON?

DEVOS: ANYTHING DEEMED TO BE A CONFLICT WILL NOT BE PART OF OUR INVESTING.

SEN. MURRAY: HOW DO YOU INTEND TO CONVINCE THIS COMMITTEE THAT NO ENTITY WILL FEEL PRESSURED TO PURCHASE, PARTNER, OR CONTRACT WITH CORPORATE OR NONPROFIT ENTITIES YOU AND YOUR FAMILY INVESTED IN, SHOULD YOU BE CONFIRMED AS SECRETARY?

DEVOS: I CAN COMMIT TO YOU THAT NOBODY WILL FEEL ANY PRESSURE LIKE THAT.

That roughly translates to “I will not have conflicts of interest because I will not have conflicts of interest.”  I know that I feel better.  That kind of evasion continued during questions by Senator Sanders of Vermont who asked her how much money her family had donated to Republican candidates over time, an amount she claimed not to know…but Senator Sanders did:

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I doubt that I would forget the exact number if I ever gave $200 million to anyone or anything.  DeVos also went on to counter Senator Sanders’ questions about making tuition free at public universities and colleges by saying that “nothing is free.”  This is true – it takes approximately $200 million to buy state legislatures and Senators, for example.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey tried to pin down the nominee on whether or not she would uphold current guidance on Title IX that relates to sexual assault on college campuses.  He got nowhere on that as did Senator Murray who later tried to pin DeVos down a second time on the issue, which is germane given that the nominee has donated $10,000 to an advocacy group that is specifically trying to overturn the Obama administration guidelines and make it more difficult for victims of sexual assault on college campuses to get justice.  DeVos basically gaslighted Senator Casey by saying her “mom’s heart was really piqued on this issue” right before the Senator reminded her of her donations.  She also danced around the record of the charter school environment in Michigan that she and her donations helped create when questioned by Senator Bennet of Colorado, going so far as to call reports of the lack of accountability “fake news.”  It’s not, by the way.  It is extremely well documented.  Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island followed this by schooling the nominee on legacy costs that accrue to school districts when charter school students take funding with them but leave behind the same costs in place.  He also asked DeVos if, given her history of donations and participation in organizations that deny climate change, she would make certain that the department will resist efforts to include “junk science” into school curricula.  Her answer?

IT IS PRETTY CLEAR IS THAT THE EXPECTATION IS SCIENCE IS TAUGHT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. I SUPPORT THE TEACHING OF GREAT SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY SCIENCE THAT ALLOWS STUDENTS TO EXERCISE CRITICAL THINKING AND TO REALLY DISCOVER AND EXAMINE IN NEW WAYS. SCIENCE SHOULD BE SUPPORTED AT ALL LEVELS.

In case you didn’t know that is perilously similar to the kind of “teach the controversy” nonsense propagated by Creationists when trying to shoehorn their way into legitimate science classrooms on subjects that are not controversial to scientists.

Senator Warren tried to pin down DeVos on how she will use the tools of the office to make certain that students in higher education are not being subjected to waste, fraud, and abuse.  Once again, DeVos refused to commit to anything more than reviewing the issue:

DEVOS: I WANT TO MAKE SURE WE DON’T HAVE PROBLEMS WITH THAT AS WELL. IF CONFIRMED, I WILL WORK DILIGENTLY TO CONFIRM WE ARE ADDRESSING ANY OF THOSE ISSUES.

SEN. WARREN: WHAT SUGGESTION DO YOU MAKE? IT TURNS OUT MANY ROLES THAT ARE ALREADY WRITTEN, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ENFORCE THEM. WHAT I WANT TO KNOW IS, WHAT YOU COMMIT TO ENFORCING THESE RULES TO ENSURE THAT NO CAREER COLLEGE RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDS UNLESS THEY CAN PROVE THEY ARE ACTUALLY PREPARING STUDENTS FOR GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT AND NOT CHEATING THEM.

DEVOS: I WILL COMMIT TO ENSURING THAT INSTITUTIONS WHICH RECEIVED FEDERAL FUNDS ARE ACTUALLY SERVING THEIR STUDENTS WELL.

SEN. WARREN: SO YOU WILL ENFORCE THE GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT RULE TO MAKE SURE THAT THESE CAREER COLLEGES ARE NOT CHEATING STUDENTS?

DEVOS: WE WILL CERTAINLY REVIEW THAT RULE.

SEN. WARREN: YOU WILL NOT COMMIT TO ENFORCE IT?

DEVOS: AND SEE THAT IT IS ACTUALLY ACHIEVING WHAT THE INTENTIONS ARE.

SEN. WARREN: I DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT REVIEWING IT. WE TALKED ABOUT THIS IN MY OFFICE. THERE ARE ALREADY RULES IN PLACE TO STOP WASTE, FRAUD, AND ABUSE, AND I AM NOT SURE HOW YOU CANNOT BE — SWINDLERS AND CROOKS ARE OUT THERE DOING BACK FLIPS WHEN THEY HEAR AN ANSWER LIKE THIS. IF CONFIRMED, YOU WILL BE THE COP ON THE BEAT. YOU CANNOT COMMIT TO USE THE TOOLS THAT ARE ALREADY AVAILABLE TO YOU IN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, BUT I DON’T SEE HOW YOU COULD BE THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION.

DeVos’ testimony turned away from evasive to and plowed directly into breathtakingly ignorant in two astonishing exchanges.  In the first, Senator Franken of Minnesota asked the nominee about her opinion on measuring performance based on proficiency or on growth, and it was quickly evident that she did not have the faintest clue what he was talking about:

SEN FRANKEN: WHEN I FIRST GOT IN THE SENATE IN 2009, I HAD A ROUNDTABLE OF PRINCIPALS IN MINNESOTA. HE SAID, WE THINK OF THE NCLB TEST AS AUTOPSIES. I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT HE MEANT. THE STUDENTS TAKE THE TEST IN APRIL, THEY GET THE RESULTS IN LATE JUNE. THE TEACHERS CANNOT USE THE TEST RESULTS TO INFORM THEIR INSTRUCTION. I SAW THAT IN MINNESOTA, THE MAJORITY OF THE SCHOOLS WERE TAKING A COMPUTER ADAPTIVE TEST, A COMPUTER TEST WHERE YOU GET THE RESULTS RIGHT AWAY, AND ADAPTIVE SO YOU CAN MEASURE OUTSIDE THE GRADE LEVEL. THIS BRINGS ME TO THE ISSUE OF PROFICIENCY, WHICH THE SENATOR CITED, VERSUS GROWTH. I WOULD LIKE YOUR VIEWS ON THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGE OF ASSESSMENTS AND USING THEM TO MEASURE PROFICIENCY OR GROWTH.

DEVOS: I THINK IF I AM UNDERSTANDING YOUR QUESTION CORRECTLY AROUND PROFICIENCY, I WOULD CORRELATE IT TO COMPETENCY AND MASTERY, SO EACH STUDENT IS MEASURED ACCORDING TO THE ADVANCEMENTS THEY ARE MAKING IN EACH SUBJECT AREA.

SEN. FRANKEN: THAT’S GROWTH. THAT’S NOT PROFICIENCY. IN OTHER WORDS, THE GROWTH THEY ARE MAKING IS NOT GROWTH. THE PROFICIENCY IS AN ARBITRARY STANDARD.

DEVOS: PROFICIENCY IS IF THEY HAVE REACHED A THIRD GRADE LEVEL FOR READING, ETC.

SEN. FRANKEN: I’M TALKING ABOUT THE DEBATE BETWEEN PROFICIENCY AND GROWTH, WHAT YOUR THOUGHTS ARE ON THAT.

DEVOS: I WAS JUST ASKING THE CLARIFY, THEN –

SEN. FRANKEN: THIS IS A SUBJECT THAT HAS BEEN DEBATED IN THE EDUCATION COMMUNITY FOR YEARS.

Later, Senator Kaine of Virginia tried to pin down DeVos on whether or not all schools which take public money – fully public or charter – should be accountable to the same laws. She danced around this as well:

SENATOR KAINE: DO YOU THINK — DO YOU THINK SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE GOVERNMENT FUNDING SAID MEET THE SAME OUTCOME STANDARDS?

MRS. DEVOS: ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE FUNDING SHOULD BE ACCOUNTABLE.

SENATOR KAINE: THE SAME STANDARDS?

MRS. DEVOS: YES. ALTHOUGH YOU HAVE DIFFERENT ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND CHARTER SCHOOLS.

SENATOR KAINE: I’M VERY INTERESTED IN THIS. PUBLIC CHARTER OR PRIVATE SCHOOLS, K-12, THEY SHOULD MEET THE SAME ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS.

MRS. DEVOS: YES. PARENTS SHOULD HAVE THE INFORMATION, FIRST AND FOREMOST.

SENATOR KAINE: WOULD YOU AGREE ON WILL YOU INSIST ON EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY ON ANY EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM THAT RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDING?

MRS. DEVOS: I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.

SENATOR KAINE: IS THAT A YES OR NO?

MRS. DEVOS: THAT IS A “I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.”

The difference between supporting “accountability” and supporting “equal accountability” is the difference between having schools that are allowed to deny students services that they do not wish to provide and schools that can do no such thing — or, if you were, the difference between a lot of charter schools and public schools.  The exchange went completely off the rails, however, when DeVos apparently did not know that there is a FEDERAL law for students with disabilities (actually, there are several) and that her role as Secretary of Education would include overseeing how it is implemented across the country:

SENATOR KAINE: SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES ACT.

MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THEY ALREADY ARE.

KAINE: I’M ASKING YOU A SHOULD QUESTION. SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE TAXPAYER FUNDING BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES AND EDUCATION.

MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS A MATTER BETTER LEFT TO THE STATES.

SENATOR KAINE: SOME STATES MIGHT BE GOOD, OTHER STATE MIGHT NOT BE SO GOOD, AND THEN PEOPLE CAN MOVE AROUND THE COUNTRY?

MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS AN ISSUE BEST LEFT TO THE STATES.

SENATOR KAINE: WHAT ABOUT THE FEDERAL REQUIREMENT? INDIVIDUALS WITH EDUCATION — INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT. LET’S LIMIT IT TO FEDERAL FUNDING. SHOULD THEY BE REQUIRED TO FOLLOW FEDERAL LAW?

Senator Hassan of New Hampshire looped back to this question a bit later:

SENATOR HASSAN: I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES IN EDUCATION LAW. THAT IS A FEDERAL LAW.

MRS. DEVOS: FEDERAL LAW MUST BE FOLLOWED WHERE FEDERAL DOLLARS ARE IN PLAY.

SENATOR HASSAN: WERE YOU UNAWARE THAT IT IS A FEDERAL LAW?

MRS. DEVOS: I MAY HAVE CONFUSED IT.

That deserves to be viewed:

“I may have confused it.”  I hope to heaven that does not become the epitaph of American public education.

I have no other word for this: breathtaking.  Betsy DeVos’ lack of knowledge on fundamental issues of great importance to the nation’s public schools is breathtaking.  The issue of proficiency versus growth as a measure of educational outcomes is fundamental to education policy across the country.  It has been debated for decades, and since the passage of No Child Left Behind, it has been front and center in our policy debates and oversight of education.  No school administrator who has had to report on Adequate Yearly Progress and no school teacher who has worked in a state where growth scores have been folded into teacher evaluations is unaware of this issue, but the nominee for Secretary of Education is.  The least prepared and most incompetent school superintendent in the entire country knows what the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is within three days of settling into the job.  There is literally no other choice given how important and complex compliance with the law can be.  But the nominee for Secretary of Education “may have confused it”?  With what, exactly?

The grizzly bear comment has been worth a lot of memes, some of them downright funny.  Heck, here are two:

But beyond that laugh, we have a likely-t0-be-confirmed nominee who tells us to “trust” that her vast fortune and holdings will not present a conflict of interest, who will not commit to preserving public education as fully public, who will not commit to upholding protections from sexual harassment and assault on college campuses (and who has donated to a group that wants to tear down those protections), who will not commit to full enforcing existing protections against fraud and abuse in higher education lending and practices, and who appears entirely unaware of one of the central debates in education policy and one of the most important pieces of federal education law passed in the past half century.

But, good news for DeVos – she has the full throated support of New York City charter school magnate and lightening rod of self-inflicted damage, Eva Moskowitz:

Given Moskowitz’s record to date, this roughly translates to: Betsy DeVos is going to shovel as much public money as possible into my hands without holding me accountable for any of it.

Roll up the sleeves, public school advocates.  We’re gonna have to fight like hell.

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Filed under Activism, Eva Moskowitz, politics, School Choice, VAMs

Betsy DeVos’ Planned Remarks – Smoke and Mirrors.

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:

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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.

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Filed under Corruption, Funding, politics, School Choice

Cory Booker Whiffs It.

Let’s not mince words: Betsy DeVos, the designated nominee for Secretary of Education, is a potential wrecking ball aimed at public schools.  The Michigan billionaire brings literally no qualifications to the post except a decades long zeal for privatizing public schools and an alliance with Christian Dominionists who see public schools’ secular and pluralistic mission as a threat to their values.  Her advocacy in Michigan helped spawn one of the most shoddy and unaccountable charter school sectors in the nation with the city of Detroit especially suffering under a bizarre maze of over capacity and an environment that was dubbed “The Hunger Games” for public school.  Even the typical funders of school choice and charter school networks tend to steer clear of Detroit because they simply have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  None of this seems to matter to DeVos who gives the impression that simply removing regulation and getting public money out of fully public schools is the only real goal — advocacy groups funded by her even blocked an effort to prevent failing charter schools from expanding.

It is possible, of course, that the reality of governing and managing the federal education bureaucracy will stifle her.  After all, the work of being a Cabinet Secretary is vastly different than the work of privately bending politicians to her will via campaign donations.  Further, the federal government only provides a small portion of the nation’s annual P-12 school budget, putting an inherent limit on the reach of the Secretary of Education.  However, Republicans are already suggesting that some or most of Donald Trump’s promised $20 billion school choice fund could come from the $15 billion spent on Title 1 grants.  $15 billion is not a lot of money compared to the $600 billion spent on public elementary and secondary education, but it reaches over 56,000 schools serving tens of millions of students.  There’s a lot of potential for chaos during her proposed tenure in Washington.

The DeVos nomination must pose a bit of difficulty for current education reform advocates who have really come into their own under President Obama.  Those who claim to stand for standards and accountability and push the narrative of “high performing” charter schools will have a difficult time defending DeVos funded outcomes in Michigan.  Perhaps more difficult is the fact that today’s education reformers have labored constantly to portray their issues – accountability and testing, privatization, breaking teachers’ unions – as matters of civil rights.  Whether writing for Peter Cunningham’s Education Post, or providing content for Campbell Brown’s The74, or lobbying Democratic politicians to favor policies long championed by Republicans like Democrats for Education Reform, education reformers do two things consistently:  1) distract from the fact that they are largely funded by what education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch has long called the “Billionaire Boys Club” who have no special interest in civil rights and progressive politics and 2) insist that turning as many schools as possible into privately managed charter schools and weakening teachers’ union rights are THE civil rights struggle of our time.  DeVos’ service as Secretary of Education will provide cognitive dissonance for these advocates.  On the one hand, she will almost certainly be a bonanza for the charter school sector.  On the other hand, she will serve at the pleasure of a President whose rise to office has sent spasms of joy among literal Nazis. Further, the incoming administration’s promises of mass deportation and “law and order” policies are aimed directly at the urban minority communities education reformers claim to serve.

Small wonder, then, that when “Democrats” for Education Reform issued a statement about the election, Shavar Jeffries suggested that Democrats resist any temptation to serve in a Trump administration.  In it, he invoked progressive principles and tried to tie them to reform priorities, but he also gave a strong nod to the condition of children in general in our communities and the need for a government that cares about those issues:

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

Less than a week later, Mr. Jeffries issued another statement about the nomination of Betsy DeVos.  The statement, more measured than the previous one, congratulated her and “applauded” her commitment to “high quality” charter schools.  The statement then turned to concern about other policies that might come from the new administration, called upon Ms. DeVos to be a “voice” against those policies, and once again blasted Donald Trump for his rhetoric.  To say that Ms. DeVos is an advocate for quality of any kind is belied by what she leaves in her wake in Michigan, but, as Mercedes Schneider points out, DFER’s lobbying arm, Education Reform Now, is a beneficiary of DeVos money.  It is hard to give full throated criticism to someone who can cut off your spigot.  This is the bind that education reformers find themselves in – unable to shout “huzzah” that one of their top allies is in the Trump administration lest they betray ideological dissonance….and unable to shout “boo” lest they bite the hand that feeds them.  America is the only advanced nation where education “reform” is made up of billionaires paying millionaires to wreck middle class unions teaching working class children.

And then there is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Booker is a bit of a phenomenon in the Democratic Party.  Having risen from city council in Newark to the mayor’s office then to the United States Senate in a little more than a decade, the Senator is well educated, charismatic, and he literally saved a neighbor from a burning building.  Actually, he also saved a freezing dog, fixed a broken traffic light, and personally shoveled out snowed in residents after a blizzard.  Give the man an armored body suit and a utility belt, and he could be Batman.  Political pundits already suggest him as a Democrat to watch out for in 2020.

What he isn’t, however, is a particular friend to public education.

While mayor of Newark, Mr. Booker famously partnered with Republican Governor Chris Christie to use a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO to reform the Brick City school system.  The resulting program, called “One Newark,” threw open the entire school system to choice and increased charter school options.  The implementation was flatly wretched, slating schools for closure even when they met their improvement targets, confusing parents and guardians in a poor managed enrollment process, sending children from the same family to schools in different wards, and leading to massive student protests and the eventual ouster of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  Mayor Booker was already in the United States Senate by the time Anderson was yanked from the project, but his finger prints were all over it, including $21 million spent on consultants who concocted the whole mess. This was no anomaly for Booker – his record is firmly in the education reform camp, including close ties to DFER and he has enjoyed campaign support from Andrew Tisch who was on the board of virtual charter school operator K12, Inc – which just happened to open 3 schools in Newark using their systems while Booker was mayor.

So what, exactly, does Senator Booker have to say about Betsy DeVos, a nominee who even his allies at DFER are being cautious about in tempering their enthusiasm?  A potential Secretary of Education who has never attended a public school, never taught at a public school, never sent her own children to a public school, has never studied education practice and policy at any level, and who has spent decades trying to funnel public education money into private hands?

I’m not saying anything.”

At an event where the Senator had no trouble voicing his, reasonable, concerns about Senator Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General, he evaded entirely the chance to speak about Betsy DeVos, even though, as RollCall noted, he has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice while she was chairwoman and spoke in 2012 to the American Federation of Children when she was chair of that organization – whose amiable title is largely cover for its support of vouchers and privatization.

I suppose the question was uncomfortable for Senator Booker.  Ms. DeVos is an ally, and she is certainly influential among some of the Senator’s donors.  She also promises to be a zealous advocate for expanding Mr. Booker’s favored school sector, charters, but she is likely to do so by gutting Title I funds to our nation’s most vulnerable communities, something not exactly on Mr. Booker’s agenda.

Still – “I’m not saying anything?”  With more than a week to contemplate the nomination, he cannot come up with anything more thought out than that?  He could have said, “I know and have enjoyed working with Betsy on issues of common interest, but the record of reform in Michigan is decidedly mixed.  My support depends upon her standing only for quality schools for urban children.”  Or he could have said, “Although I have found some common ground with Betsy before, I am very concerned that the new administration is eyeing money that 21 million children depend on.  If she supports projects that harm them I will certainly oppose her nomination.”  Or he could have said, “Betsy has advocated for ideas I can appreciate, but she should use her new position to strongly advocate for the dignity and safety of all of our children who have reason to fear the new administration. If she does not, I will oppose her nomination.”

But, no – “I’m not saying anything.”

Senator Booker had a chance to show that his education reform credentials are really wrapped tightly in at least SOME progressive principles.  He whiffed it instead.

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Filed under Betsy DeVos, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Newark, One Newark, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

Secretary of Privatization

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.

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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.

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I told you suckers what I was about, didn’t I?

 

 

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Corruption, Drumpf, Funding, NCLB, politics, School Choice