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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools - The New Yorker

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, is a vocal proponent of charter schools, voucher programs, and virtual education—but not of public schools.





"Among the points that can be made in favor of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s billionaire nominee for the position of Secretary of Education, are the following: She has no known ties to President Vladimir Putin, unlike Trump’s nominee to head the State Department, Rex Tillerson, who was decorated with Russia’s Order of Friendship medal a few years ago. She hasn’t demonstrated any outward propensity for propagating dark, radical-right-leaning conspiracy theories, unlike Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s designated national-security adviser. She has not actively called for the dismantling of the department she is slated to head, as have Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, and Scott Pruitt, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.



That the absence of such characteristics should bear noting only underlines the dystopian scope of Trump’s quest to complete his cabinet of cronies. On the other hand, DeVos has never taught in a public school, nor administered one, nor sent her children to one. She is a graduate of Holland Christian High School, a private school in her home town of Holland, Michigan, which characterizes its mission thus: “to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ.”



How might DeVos seek to transform the educational landscape of the United States in her position at the head of a department that has a role in overseeing the schooling of more than fifty million American children? As it happens, she does have a long track record in the field. Since the early nineteen-nineties, she and her husband, Dick DeVos, have been very active in supporting the charter-school movement. They worked to pass Michigan’s first charter-school bill, in 1993, which opened the door in their state for public money to be funnelled to quasi-independent educational institutions, sometimes targeted toward specific demographic groups, which operate outside of the strictures that govern more traditional public schools. (Dick DeVos, a keen pilot, founded one of his own: the West Michigan Aviation Academy, located at Gerald Ford International Airport, which serves an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male population of students.)



As a board member of Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, and later as the chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos expressed her ultimate goals in education reform, which she said she saw encompassing not just charter schools and voucher programs but also homeschooling and virtual education: “That all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the best opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”



One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness. How have such DeVos-sponsored initiatives played out thus far in her home state? Earlier this year, the Detroit Free Press published the results of a yearlong investigation into the state’s two-decade-long charter-school initiative—one of the least regulated in the country. Almost two-thirds of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities. This lack of transparency has not translated into stellar academic results: student standardized-test scores at charter schools, the paper found, were no more than comparable with those at traditional public schools. And, despite the rhetoric of “choice,” lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system. Even Tom Watkins, the state’s former education superintendent, who favors charter schools, told the newspaper, “In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”



After DeVos’s nomination, the editorial-page editor of the Free Press, Stephen Henderson—whose own children attend a high-performing charter school—wrote a searing indictment of Detroit’s experiment. “This deeply dysfunctional education landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident,” he wrote. “It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.” DeVos was at the center of that lobby; her lodestar, Henderson wrote, “has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it is not operated by government.”



As the Republican nominee, Trump campaigned on a platform of educational reform, proposing to assign twenty billion dollars of federal funds to a block grant aimed at opening up school choice. The assumption is that productive competition between schools will result. “Competition always does it,” Trump said in September, as if he were speaking about air-conditioner factories rather than academic institutions. “The weak fall out and the strong get better. It is an amazing thing.”





Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools - The New Yorker

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