Betsy Devos, an unqualified billionaire with a knack for destroying education in her own state, has been confirmed as the country's new Secretary of Education. Many are wondering whether the strategic Republican marketing of "school choice" has any leg to stand on.
"Public schools are failing," is something that I hear a lot when we break down education in the U.S.. While reports and studies are mixed on charter schools, with some that perform well and others that fail miserably, I'll do my best to make a case for why someone with DeVos' thought process can be a potential nightmare for the future of education in the country.
Much of the criticism centered around Betsy DeVos focuses on her lack of experience with public schools. While she has shown some interest in "protecting" students from the non-existent threat of grizzlies wandering onto their campuses, she has never run, taught in, attended or sent a child to a public school.
But she's swimming in an olympic pool overflowing with hundos, and in the Trump era, inheriting cold hard cash from papa is all the qualification you need to toy with opportunities for the underprivileged. Although that statement reads as a bit hyperbolic, all one needs to do is a take a nuanced look at what DeVos did to education in Michigan.
DeVos and her family have donated a whopping $200 million to Republican politicians, and her political influence has been impactful enough to convince Michigan state lawmakers to push for under-regulated charter schools. Keep in mind that these are schools that are insulated from common sense regulations that ensure students are getting a decent education. That may be the reason why test scores in some these Michigan charters are abysmal, yet their unqualified administrators still take home $130,000 a year.
To be fair, not all charters in Michigan were always in bad shape. In fact, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes analyzed data from these schools up until 2011 and found that some of them do perform rather well, while others perform the same as traditional public schools. But this study, which conservatives love to share as proof of charter success, has its limitations including how dated it is.
A great deal changed for Michigan charters after 2011, when DeVos' relentless lobbying convinced lawmakers to lift a cap on the number of charters in the state and all of a sudden both traditional public schools and charters were fighting for the limited resources available. In 2014, charters were already receiving $1 billion in state funding, and thirty new charter schools popped up in 2013 alone.
Charter schools were supposed to compete with public schools, and in turn, that competition was meant to improve education. But that wasn't the end result. The New York Times explained all this perfectly last July, before DeVos was a household name:
While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives."
The rapid growth and chaos of charters in Michigan even alarmed their proponents who feel these schools weren't held accountable when they did fail. Greg Richmond, who played a pivotal role in pushing for charter schools throughout the country, and also happens to be the head of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, understands that not all charters will succeed. He wants to make sure there are enough standards and reporting so failing charters are shut out of receiving valuable taxpayer money.
“The quality of schools in Michigan — what you’re seeing there is probably pretty nationally representative,” Richmond said in an interview. “I never thought that all charter schools were going to be great.”
In Michigan, some charters are a complete and utter disaster. The Detroit Free Press shares just one of many examples:
On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.
The push to defund public schools and reroute taxpayer money to charters and private institutions is actually a very clever strategy by the right wing, which has always had a great deal of disdain for a system that forces them to pay taxes toward some other kid's non-religious science-based education.
The idea is to defund public schools enough that they inevitably fail. In their dream world, all schools would be privatized and run like businesses. But while they hoard their billions, keep in mind that the country is saddled with $1.3 TRILLION in student loan debt. If all schools become privatized in the U.S., the poor wouldn't be given vouchers for "school choice." They would have no choices.
Many for-profit colleges that did run like businesses looking to make their investors rich defrauded students and had to shut down. Trump University is just one example of that, and our President had to pay out a $25 million dollar settlement because of how badly he screwed students over. During confirmation hearings DeVos expressed she was skeptical of the Obama Administration's regulations aimed at tackling the fraudulent behavior of these schools. That may be why Trump has a soft spot for DeVos.
But it is important to put all of this in perspective. For one, the Secretary of Education has a very limited role, and states have much more control over how their schools are funded.
"The position of secretary of education is, more than anything, an opportunity to be a bully pulpit to express the views of the president," Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Business Insider. "The role is highly constrained."
However, while DeVos can't single-handedly privatize schools across the nation, she does have some notable power. According to Stephen Henderson at the Detroit Free Press, who has done expensive reporting on DeVos, "as Secretary of Education, DeVos would be expected to help set standards, guide accountability and oversee research in a way that benefits children, through outcomes, not one particular interest or industry."
That's quite some responsibility for someone who has demonstrated a significant lack of judgment in her own state.
"Government really sucks," Devos said in a 2015 speech to educators. Considering the role she's about to play in the federal government maybe she was on to something.