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?
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.