Trump terrifies public school advocates with education secretary pick

The Washington Post

Advocates of public education in the United States have worried that President-elect Donald Trump would tap an education secretary who would speed up the privatization of public schools, a move that many fear could destroy America's public education system, the country's most important civic institution. Well, they were right about the appointment -- and then some.

After Democrats Michelle Rhee and Eva Moskowitz said they weren't interested in the job, Trump tapped Betsy DeVos, a former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan and chair of the pro-choice advocacy group American Federation of Children.

Seen by her supporters as a tireless, driven supporter of school choice, opponents say she is the most ideological and anti-public education nominee ever to be put forward to run the the nearly 40-year-old department. They fear that Trump, along with DeVos, will push "choice" programs that many see as draining resources from the traditional public school districts that educate most American schoolchildren.

School choice has become a central priority of the corporate school reform movement, which aims to have the U.S. public education system run on market forces. School choice proponents say that charter schools and vouchers offer parents important options for their children's education -- allowing them to leave their neighborhood schools in search of something better -- and that traditional public schools have failed in many places.

School choice opponents say that "choice" not only siphons resources from traditional systems but also promotes segregation, discriminates against students with the most severe disabilities, and fights against public oversight. There are studies that exist in support of any side, but the preponderance of independent research shows that choice programs have failed to systemically improve student achievement and have harmed public school districts.

That prospect was clear this month in Massachusetts, when voters refused to agree to raise a cap on charter school expansion, and Moody's, the rating agency, applauded the move, saying it would allow urban districts to maintain their current financial operations without added pressure from charters that could create virtually insurmountable money problems.

Betsy DeVos has made clear her interest is in promoting choice, including for-profit charters, and has helped promote them in her own state, Michigan, also working against efforts to allow real public oversight of these schools. This past August, the Detroit Free Press published a story that said:

"Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools - but state laws regulating charters are among the nation's weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.

"A yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press reveals that Michigan's lax oversight has enabled a range of abuses in a system now responsible for more than 140,000 Michigan children. That figure is growing as more parents try charter schools as an alternative to traditional districts."

The push for choice at the expense of traditional public education is what terrifies public school advocates. At some point, they fear, too many traditional systems will not be able to sustain themselves financially because of underfunding and financial pressure from charters and voucher programs, and that they ultimately will collapse.

Where would students go? There are not enough charter schools or private schools to fill the void in most places -- and rushing to open new schools without sufficient planning and oversight would create problems too numerous to list. The students with the least resources and fewest advocates will be trapped, perhaps with nowhere to go.

Another issue attached to the expansion of charters and vouchers involves just which students are being served. The choice movement has to this point largely aimed to help students in urban areas find alternatives to troubled school districts.

But many in the choice movement believe that all students -- regardless of family socio-economic status -- should have the right to attend the school of their choice. That proposition leads to a range of problems as well, including the notion that wealthy families could ultimately wind up with public money to send them to exclusive private schools.

As it is now, voucher programs don't provide enough money for a student to enroll in a high-tuition private school without additional financial help, and thus many students using vouchers go to religious schools. In some states, some Christian voucher schools teach concepts that wouldn't be allowed in a traditional school, such as that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old and that dinosaurs once co-existed with human beings. Because the schools are private, they can teach that with impunity -- and public dollars are paying for children to get such an education.

When school reformers talk about the importance of high standards for students, this is the kind of thing you might think they would consider. But choice supporters, including DeVos, have consistently refused to make a broad stand for charter accountability.

Trump and DeVos would not be starting the "choice" movement; it has been building momentum, first under president George W. Bush and then under President Barack Obama's administration. Obama did not support vouchers, but his Education Department pushed the spread of charters. Now that the school choice barn door is cracked, Trump and DeVos plan to blast it wide open.

Carol Burris, a former award-winning high school principal who is now executive director of the advocacy group Network for Public Education, wrote:

"The DeVos pick makes one thing clear -- it shows Trump's commitment to the privatization of public schools. … DeVos wants all children to have vouchers, and she opposes regulations and oversight. Betsy DeVos spent over $1 million to successfully block the effort of the Michigan legislature to clean up the mess of for-profit, unregulated charters. … The veil of so-called ed reform is now off."

DeVos wasn't an early supporter of Trump's, and she wasn't a visceral opponent of the Common Core State Standards, which Trump repeatedly trashed. (She tweeted on Wednesday that she didn't support the Core.) But in the end, what mattered to Trump was her core belief in school choice, proving that he plans to make the expansion of vouchers or voucher-like programs a top educational priority.

DeVos has worked on school reform issues with her husband, Richard. The two helped push for Michigan's charter school law in 1993, and on Dec. 3, 2002, Richard DeVos gave a now-famous speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation laying out a state-by-state strategy to expand vouchers and school choice by rewarding and punishing legislators who either went along with the plan or did not. During the speech, he advised that supporters call public schools "government schools," as a pejorative, and urged that they "be cautious about talking too much about these activities" so as not to call attention and garner opposition.

There are now 25 voucher programs in 14 states, allowing families to take taxpayer dollars with them to pay for private or parochial schools, according to EdChoice, a pro-choice organization: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana (2), Maine, Maryland, Mississippi (2), North Carolina (2), Ohio (5), Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin (4) as well as in Washington, D.C. There also are similar programs involving tax credits in other states, showing the broad expansion of the movement in the past two decades.

DeVos's nomination got mixed reviews. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Senate education committee, said she was a great choice:

"Betsy DeVos is an excellent choice. The Senate's education committee will move swiftly in January to consider her nomination. Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children. As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities. I also look forward to working with her on the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, giving us an opportunity to clear out the jungle of red tape that makes it more difficult for students to obtain financial aid and for administrators to manage America's 6000 colleges and universities."

Others, especially advocates for public education, were horrified. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement:

"The President-Elect, in his selection of Betsy DeVos, has chosen the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.

"In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.

"DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools. The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family's wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan. Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation.

"We have an obligation to all children in America. That's why we've fought to ensure that schools that struggle get fixed, that we fight for kids to have the powerful learning, the social and emotional and wrap around services and the great teachers they need. That's why we fight for parents to have the voice they need and communities throughout the country to have the local decision making for their schools and investment they need so we do everything we can to help all children have a great public education. What this pick means is far from ensuring that every child has the option of a great public education, the many who have it now will lose it. That's been the experience of 25 years of privatizing - it helps very few, and many others now go to schools that have faced years of austerity and disinvestment.

"Betsy DeVos is everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America-an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system and push a special-interest agenda that is opposed by the majority of voters. Installing her in the Department of Education is the opposite of Trump's promise to drain the swamp."

Corporate school reformers say that too many school districts in America were failing students and that led to their choice ideas. They weren't wrong in saying too many schools were inadequate and too many students were failing. But the reasons for this have long been far more complex than claimed many reformers claim; they consistently refuse to acknowledge the importance of factors outside school that affect students and use choice as a cover to try to destroy teachers unions and privatize education.

That goal has never been closer.

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