By Brett DeGroff
Brett DeGroff is an Assistant Defender with the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office. He is a former Manging Editor of National Lawyers Guild Review.
Betsy DeVos’s appointment as United States Secretary of Education might be the best thing to happen to public education in decades.
Which is not to say DeVos herself is likely to be any friend to public education. Nothing could be further from the truth. As things stand, the damage DeVos inflicts on public education might be limited only by the ineptitude of the Trump administration and perhaps DeVos herself. But maybe, at long last, her appointment will raise enough awareness to change where things stand.
We Americans love our schools. But for years we’ve been told that our schools are “failing.” Naturally, our response is to try to x the problem. So when we’re offered policies packaged as solutions and labeled with jargon like “choice,” “competition,” and “accountability,” we have been willing to give them a try. But none of this is making public schools any better. At best these policies have been experiments based on shaky hypotheses which have produced mixed to poor results over decades of trial and error. At worst, they are failed ideas no longer meant to x public education, but to corporatize and monetize it. As the larger political pendulum has oscillated, the conversation on public education has careened forward with both major political parties enamored of experimenting with our schools. In Betsy DeVos, we have a Secretary of Education who is a caricature of every absurdity inherent in the failed corporatist experiments mentioned above. Maybe her appointment is finally enough to get our policy back on course.
The sinister thing about the choice and voucher movement championed by DeVos is that it uses our desire to improve our schools to motivate us to subject them to experimentation and allow public resources to be diverted to private profits. For the most part, Americans are satisfied with the schools their children attend. In a 1999 national survey, 71 percent of respondents rated their children’s school with an A or B, and a study in Michigan found a similar result recently. 1 But Americans are less sure about schools they don’t see every day. The national survey found that just 23 percent of parents thought the nation’s schools deserved an A or B overall, and in Michigan, DeVos’s home state, a clear majority marked the state’s schools with a C or lower.2 Because each of us wants every child to have a school as good as our own child’s school, we set out to x those other schools. The irony is that the data shows most people don’t want their own schools “ xed” and that the experiments advocated by “reformers” like DeVos target schools that students and their parents are perfectly happy with.
It’s difficult to connect DeVos to precise policies she intends to “ x” our schools with given her lack of public track record. Before being nominated to her current post, DeVos had never been employed by a public school, nor had she held elected office and been forced to go on the record to defend specific policies. As the daughter of one billionaire and the wife of an even wealthier one, she has never attended a public school nor sent any of her children to them. DeVos has never formally studied education or pedagogy. Famously, during her confirmation hearing, DeVos seemed confounded by whether students should be assessed in terms of pro ciency or growth, revealing an embarrassing ignorance about literally the first thing one needs to know about standardized testing. Despite her lack of any actual experience in public education, we know the broad strokes of the policies she favors. Her right-wing ideology is no secret.
DeVos has been at the forefront of promoting polices connected with vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, and school ranking. These aren’t new ideas, nor are they confined to one political party. In 1996 President Clinton’s reelection platform contained the goal of “[s]upporting public school choice.”3 President Clinton also called on “all 50 states to pass laws to provide for the creation of charter schools . . . .”4 President G. W. Bush gave us No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB schools would forgo federal funding if they did not test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. States were required to bring all students to proficient level.5 President Obama gave us Race to the Top. Under that scheme, states competed for federal money by pursuing policies such as standardized testing, ranking schools, and closing the lowest performing schools.6
Administration to administration, year to year, the story has been the same. Our schools are failing, so try these experiments. And always the experiments have drawn on this voucher vision of education promoted by Betsy DeVos.
The voucher vision is a wild departure from the public vision which has been responsible for the best successes in our education system. The public vision is familiar to most of us. In the public vision, schools are local entities run by locally elected of cials. We pay for schools with local taxes, and when our of cials want more money, we have a local vote. The public school is open to all the community’s children.
In the public vision, the school doesn’t belong just to the children and parents, it belongs to the community. Today’s student is tomorrow’s community member, employee, and voter. The better job we do educating our community’s children today, the better off we’ll all be tomorrow. Education is a responsibility of the community in the public vision. But we also get more than that from our schools.
In many communities, the public schools are the de facto hub of public life. People come together at football games and plays. The school’s playground does double duty as the local park. People roll up their sleeves for fundraisers and parent groups. They serve on school boards and attend meetings. Each of these small acts of civic engagement may not seem like much by itself, but year after year, these are the things that bind our com- munities together.
We do these things because it is all for our schools. We’re proud of our schools because they are ours, and because they are ours we work hard to make them something to be proud of. This is the incentive behind the public vision of education. It’s hopeful, it’s powerful, and in communities across the country it has worked and continues to work today.
Betsy DeVos’s voucher vision of education is different. The voucher vision is a cynical one which pits us against one another in a competition for scarce resources. Children take standardized tests, and schools are labeled “failing” based on the results. Failing schools are penalized either by being closed and hoping a charter operator fills the void, or by allowing students to take their piece of public funding elsewhere in the form of a voucher.
In the voucher vision, the incentive is self-interest and fear. Parents and children scramble for the “best” school. Schools scramble for the children. What’s hyped as a race to the top really ends up as a crush to stay off the bottom. But someone has to be on the bottom.
There are plenty of casualties in the voucher vision. Kids for one. When a school’s existence depends on the yearly test scores, the incentive is high to jettison the low scoring students. Public schools can’t do that. In 1975 the United States Supreme Court held that when a state extends the bene t of education, it cannot withdraw it through expulsion without Due Process.7 But charter schools are not bound by the Court’s ruling because the public school system is available to take charter schools’ castoffs.8 States are moving toward statutory mandates that test scores are incorporated into teacher evaluations. The pressure to produce scores is so intense that some teachers have resorted to changing their students answers, and wound up in prison.9 And of course, there are the communities which lose their schools. A charter might crop up to replace a closed school. But a charter could also be closed for poor test scores, or because it’s not pro table, or really for any reason its owner sees t. When that happens, the community has no recourse, because the charter is not theirs
In the voucher vision, parents and children are reduced to mere customers in a marketplace. They have no recourse at the ballot box if they have a problem with the school. Their only remedy is to take their “business” elsewhere—which of course assumes there is somewhere else to go. And communities are left out completely.
Maybe all this could be forgiven if the voucher vision outperformed the public vision. But that comparison really makes no sense. It’s a bit like asking if a parasite outperforms its host. The voucher vision could never operate without public funding and the remnants of public districts to take the students the voucher vision can’t handle. But let’s suppose for a moment that the comparison did make sense. Even by the gold standard of the voucher vision, standardized test scores, none of these DeVos-backed policies are helping. In Michigan, where DeVos has been so politically active, 73 percent of charter schools performed below the average public school in 2012.10 And while Michigan has been ground zero for everything “choice” and “voucher” the state constitution will allow, it continues to fall further behind other states.11
There has never been any evidence to support the notion that any of these “choice” and “voucher” experiments will improve our schools. To the contrary, the evidence leads to the opposite conclusion. DeVos has been pro ting from the proliferation of for-pro t universities—educational scams of the worst kind that have saddled students from vulnerable populations with debt and worthless diplomas—and stands to take a financial hit if government extends early childhood education benefits.12 Making money off education might be DeVos’s only real qualification for her current post. And maybe, at long last, with this caricature of greed and incompetence as the public face of our disastrous education policy, the debate on these issues will finally turn a corner.
1 Survey on Education, KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION (Aug. 30, 1999), http://kff.org/ other/poll-finding/survey-on-education/; THE CENTER FOR MICHIGAN, THE PUBLIC’S AGENDA FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION: HOW MICHIGAN CITIZENS WANT TO IMPROVE STUDENT LEARNING (2013), available at https://cfgf.org/cfgf/LinkClick.aspx?filetick et=c2iMbkh8ab0%3D&tabid=394.
3 Bill Clinton 1996 On The Issues Improving Education, 4 PRESIDENTS.US, http://www.4president.us/issues/clinton1996/clinton1996education.htm (last visited on July 10,2017).
5 Alyson Klein, No Child Left Behind: An Overview, EDUCATION WEEK (Apr. 10, 2015), http://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/no-child-left-behind-overview-definition-summary.html.
6 Programs: Race to the Top Fund, U.S. DEPT. OF EDUC., https://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html (last visited on July 10, 2017).
7 Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 573-74, 95 S. Ct. 729, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725 (1975).
8 See, e.g., Scott B. v. Bd. of Tr. of Orange Cty. High Sch. of the Arts (Cal.), 158 Cal. Rptr. 3d 173 (Cal. Ct. App. 2013); Lindsey v. Matayoshi, 950 F. Supp. 2d 1159 (D. Haw. 2013).
9 Richard Fausset & Alan Blinder, Atlanta School Workers Sentenced in Test Score Cheating Case, N.Y. TIMES, Apr. 14, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/us/atlanta-school-workers-sentenced-in-test-score-cheating-case.html.
10 See THE CENTER FOR MICHIGAN, supra note 2.
11 Shawn D. Lewis, Michigan Test Score Gains Worst in Nation, THE DETROIT NEWS (Feb. 20, 2017, 12:08 AM), http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/ michigan/2017/02/20/michigan-test-score-gains-worst-nation/98144368/.
12 Ben Miller & Laura Jiminez, Inside the Financial Holdings of Billionaire Betsy DeVos, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS (Jan. 27, 2017, :24 PM), https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education/news/2017/01/27/297572/inside-the-financial-holdings-of-billionaire-betsy-devos/.