Education Opportunity Network

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Words That Hurt Our Public Schools, And Ones That Help

[The following is a transcript of a presentation to grantees of the Schott Foundation for Public Education]

I want to start off today with a story about my mom. Trust me, I’ll eventually transition to talking about education. But my mom’s story illustrates how attitudes are affected by media and language.

My mom was born in 1923 on the plains of North Dakota. Her dad, my grandfather was a farmer-rancher. Her mom, my grandmother, ran the house and brought in laundry, sewing, and other work from neighbors.

But then commodity prices fell through the floor and the Great Depression hit. Then my grandfather’s farm blew away in the Dust Bowl. Talk about a perfect storm.

With hardly any income of their own, my grandparents turned to the public sector, the government, for financial assistance. Through what was called the Work Progress Administration, the WPA, created by the Franklin Roosevelt presidential administration, my grandfather got a position operating a grain elevator in eastern Montana.

With a steady source of income, my grandparents could provide for my mom and her three other siblings. Things weren’t always easy. When my mom knocked out a front tooth in a toboggan accident, she had to have a wooden peg fill the empty space until they had a chicken to pay the dentist and they could travel to a town that had a dentist.

Nevertheless, my grandparents, neither who completed more than an elementary school level of education, had access to local public schools for their children, each of whom graduated high school. My mom was the first person, and the first woman, in her extended family to attend community college and then a public state university to earn her degree in nursing education. She was recruited by the US Military to serve in the Nurses Corp training nurses for the frontline troops in World War II.

That job was her ticket out of her small, rural community and led her to move to Dallas, Texas to accept a position in nurse education at a major metropolitan hospital in the late 1940s. It was there that she met the man who would eventually be my father.

Government Is The Problem

By the time I came along, a lot had changed in my parents lives. And by the time I reached my teenage years and began to develop more of an awareness of the larger world, I noticed my parents’ attitudes toward public institutions were changing. Government services and public workers had become subjects of scorn.

If the line of customers at the Post Office was long, it was because of lazy postal workers. When a vehicle needed an inspection sticker or a household project needed a permit, it was government meddling in our lives. Local news stories about any breakdown in municipal services were attributed to “typical” government ineptitude. City busses were irritants in the roadway. Taxes were a theft of family income.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president in the 1980s, it became popular for political leaders to say, as Reagan was fond of saying, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” My parents were happy cheerleaders for that, especially my mom, despite her personal history of getting a hand-up in life from public services.

So what happened?

Now it’s true that governments at all levels have been less than perfect institutions. The local government where I grew up sure didn’t do a very good job of serving low-income black and brown school children.

But in a democratic society, “government” is ultimately up to us, and what it does is an expression of what we want to do for ourselves.

So what the critics of government are saying, really, is that they have a problem with democracy.

It’s important to know government wasn’t turned into a four-letter word by happenstance. It happened by design.

The War On Government

The liberalism of Roosevelt’s Great Society that dominated politics in the 1950s and 60s was the enemy of those who wanted society to be structured to better serve their interests rather than democratic interests. And by the late 60s and early 70s, these forces marshalled their considerable resources to overturn the public’s role to determine the public good.

I could go on all day about the history of this, about 20th century American conservatism, the Lewis Powell Memo, and the shifting of the Overton Window. There are whole books about it: Winner Take All Politics by Jacob Hacker, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas.

My parent’s antipathy toward government could have been the result of multiple factors. But there’s no doubt that during their conversion, forces were hard at work conditioning Americans to fear the words “social” and “public,” as if those words are evil or anti-American

Whether or not you accept the existence of “the vast rightwing conspiracy,” which is what Hillary Clinton would come to call this movement, you can’t deny the impact of a decades-long assault on public institutions and public service workers.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute examined public-sector employment trends over the last three decades and found that government employment had dramatically contracted, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the population. Today, public sector jobs as a share of all employment are at a 30-year low, falling from 9.6 percent in the 1980s to 9 percent 30 years later.

A 2015 article in the New York Times looked at public sector employment and found that even as local and state economies were recovering from the 2008 recession, public sector jobs were continuing to decline, accounting for 1.8 million fewer jobs than in 2007.

The decline in public sector employment has hit black families particularly hard. Roughly one in five black adults works a government job. Black wage earners are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics.

Many, attribute the success of the anti-public movement to the vast wealth of individuals in big business and finance. That wealth helps for sure.

But I would argue that they have a weapon more valuable than money: It’s the English language.

Language As A Weapon

The war on the public sector uses the power of language on every front. For instance, slashing financial resources for the public good is called tax relief. Laws preventing industrial pollution from fouling our shared environment are called stifling regulation. Public financial assistance for the poor is called a government give-away program. Funds we collectively pool to ensure our financial security in old age are branded entitlements.

What makes these words powerful are the ideas behind them. As George Lakoff writes in his seminal book Don’t Think of an Elephant, words are representations of values, and the war of words is really a conflict over what values are going to guide our nation – whether, for instance, we’re going to have a government that works for the common good, or one that enforces the power of the wealthy few.

I would also argue that the war of words on the public sector has had some of its greatest success in the effort to dismantle public education. (See, I told you I would eventually get to education.) You can see its success in the fact that now politicians in both parties, to quote veteran education journalist Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, basically copy each other on education.

Let’s look at some of the words used to assault our schools and consider how we can fight back:

Public Education Is Broken

How often do you read that “America’s schools are failing” and “public education is in crisis”?

Is there any truth to this? Not really.

In the only longitudinal measure of student achievement – the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAPE – American students have improved substantially over the past 40 years. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American and Hispanic students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged.

The percentage of kids scoring “below basic” on the NAEP has plummeted in both reading and math in both fourth and eighth grade for every racial group except Native Americans. Average reading and math scores for each subgroup in the fourth and eighth grades have also climbed steadily.

On international assessments, American students’ performance in math and science has improved from the bottom to above international average. US students in schools with 10 percent or less poverty are number one in the world.

Students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers. And almost half of all American high school students now head off to college each year, an all-time high.

The story of American education is actually about steady progress – slow, that’s true – but progress nevertheless.

Does this mean that there are no struggling schools in America? Of course not. Does this mean public schools universally work for every student? No.

But the rhetorical frame that public education is a failure is used to convince people the whole system is bad and that it’s collapse has been inevitable.

The way we fight back against this misleading rhetoric is to ask why are there broken schools and who broke them?

Education Is About Getting The Best For Your Child

These days, politicians like to talk about education like it’s a “competition” to get students over the bar or up to speed.

Terms like “college or career ready” and getting young children “ready to learn” all perpetuate the idea that the only purpose of education is to get individuals to a next stage or an end goal.

This rhetorical frame is used to convince people that once their own children are provided for then that’s all that matters.

It ignores that education is really about developing our societal capacity. We want all citizens educated so our whole society prospers.

That’s why early state constitutions in the U.S., like those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, stressed the importance of a system of public schools. That’s why the Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for public school financing in new territories. And the earliest advocates for public schools – Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Horace Mann – all agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.

Turning our collective investment in education into a competition to get to the top ensures there will be winners and losers. Designing a school system that maximizes self-interest means only those who already have advantages get what they want.

Instead of telling parents their children need to be well educated so they can compete, we should say children need to be well educated so they can take part in a democratic society.

Money Should Follow The Child

This is a favorite of advocates for charter schools and vouchers that let parents transfer their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The idea has a gloss of sensibility to it because education budgets often come with per-pupil expenditures.

But the idea that the money should follow the child when students leave a public school for other options is a bad financial decision.

First, schools have what are called “stranded costs”. When a public school loses a percentage of students to charter schools or a voucher program, the school can’t reduce costs by an equivalent percent. The school still must pay the same utility, maintenance, transportation, and food services costs. The school must still carry the salary and benefit costs of administrative staff, custodial services, and cafeteria workers. The school may not be able to reduce teaching staff because the attrition will occur randomly across various grade levels, leaving class sizes only marginally reduced.

In Philadelphia for instance, a recent study found when a student leaves the school district for a charter school, the public system is left with nearly $5,000 in continuing costs. A study in Boston found the stranded cost is $7,000.

A research study of school districts in Michigan found that choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts. When the percent of students attending charter schools approaches 20 percent, there are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances.

Because schools can’t reduce expenses incrementally, they cut support staff – such as a reading specialist or librarian. They cut courses – such as art and music. And the whole capacity of the school diminishes.

Further, students aren’t a “one-off” expense. The cost to educate each student varies a lot. Students with disabilities or who don’t speak English as their first language often cost significantly more to educate. So as a school loses students, it may often find itself left with a larger percentage of its highest-cost students.

Instead of saying money should follow the child, we should say children don’t come with a price tag, and that every school needs to have enough resources to meet the needs and interests of all its students.

Money Doesn’t Matter

How often do you hear the argument that we can’t fix the problems in schools by “throwing money at them.”

We constantly hear that schools are incredibly wasteful and they have to do better with the money they have.

Arne Duncan loved to call this “the new normal.”

It’s also just not true. Yes America does spend more money per student than most other industrialized countries. But remember, this is an average and there is incredibly wide variance in the system.

The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts. That’s a national funding gap of $1,500 per student, on average, a gap that has grown 44 percent since 2001.

When spending has increased, about half of the increases, according to economist Richard Rothstein, come from serving students with disabilities and immigrant students who don’t speak English.

But in total, most states spend less money on education today than they did in 2008 – some of them a lot less. And national per-pupil spending has dropped 3 years in a row. In the meantime student populations continue to increase.

But does money even matter? Numerous studies say yes.

According to one of those studies by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, on average, higher per-pupil spending produces better results. School resources that cost money — like class size reduction or higher teacher salaries — tend to be positively associated with better student outcomes.

This is especially true with low-income students. One study found that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending had virtually closed the high school graduation gap between poor students and their wealthier peers and it got far more of those students into college.

So instead of talking about the need to “tighten our belts” and adjust to the “new normal” we need to talk about giving schools the resources that are necessary to address all their students’ needs and interests.

Schools Should Be Run Like A Business

How often do you hear people say, “If we ran a business the way we operate schools, it wouldn’t be in business very long”?

We’re told that education is too inefficient and not productive enough, that schools need to focus on “quality improvement” and “zero defects.”

We’re told that teachers resist change, that schools are a bureaucratic monopoly, and that more competition needs to be introduced into the system.

So now superintendents call themselves CEOs and parents are called customers.

This rhetoric distorts the mission of education.

First when people say run schools like a business, they don’t say what kind of business? Coal mines aren’t run like restaurants.

Second, most businesses fail. Do we really want schools that are constantly failing? How is that good for kids?

Third, you’ve all heard the Papa John’s tagline “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.” Well, as Jamie Vollmer has pointed out, schools can’t control their ingredients. They have to educate all children with the resources they are given by the community.

Lastly, businesses are not democratic institutions. Schools must be democratic if we want parents and taxpayers to have input into how schools are run. And schools must model democracy if we want children to be prepared to function in a democratic society.

So instead of comparing schools to businesses, we should talk about schools as essential infrastructure, like fire and police protection, roads and bridges, and our electoral process.

Any School Getting Public Money Is A Public School

Yes, you heard that right.

According to school choice advocates, the public school system should give parents the option to choose from an array of school options, some of which aren’t truly public.

When a school choice pressure group recently descended on the capital of my home state North Carolina, they advocated for the state’s Virtual Academy, an online school run by private for-profit operator K12 Inc. Other “public school options” the group advocates for are “tax-credit funded scholarship programs” that help families pay for private school tuition.

Similarly, the Florida school choice advocacy group RefinED contends that school vouchers, which allow parents to transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense, are part of a public school system.

The intent here is to make you believe that private online schools and voucher funded schools are public schools just because they get public money.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the growth of the charter school industry could see this coming from a long way off.

For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools public schools.

But charter schools fail the test for what constitutes a truly public institution in many ways:

Charter school buildings are often privately owned by the school founders, or by an affiliated company or private trust, even if the building was originally purchased with taxpayer money.

Sometimes, the materials, furniture, and equipment in the schools are owned by a private charter management company, and if the school closes, the charter “owner” may keep those assets, even though they were purchased with taxpayer money.

While most public schools are governed by democratically elected public boards, most charter schools are run by appointed boards who are not directly accountable to the community.

Unlike public schools, charters can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available. They do not have to take students mid-year and do not have to “backfill” seats, that is, accept students to fill open spots when students leave.

Generally, charter schools don’t have to follow the same due process rules for students and employees that public schools follow. They can set their own academic, behavior, and cultural standards regardless of community norms.

And while public schools are obligated to share information about their operations, charter schools have very narrow requirements for what information they report and can restrict public access.

Despite these obvious differences, the charter industry lobby has been very successful in convincing politicians and policy makers that their schools are public. And now the same sort of logic is being used to claim other private education operators are in fact public schools too.

Cornerstones Of Effective Communication

But none of these options – charter schools, voucher supported private schools, and online schools operated by private companies – are part of a truly public school system. They are instead, parallel school systems – each necessitating separate layers of bureaucracy and oversight and each siphoning money out of our public schools.

I can go through many more of these phrases that are used to dismantle the public education system. But what I want to leave you with today is some news about a new tool to help you wage this rhetorical war and also a bit of advice on how to plan your own messaging.

First, later this month, the Network for Public Education will debut a new online toolkit to help grassroots public school advocates deal effectively with the powerful advocacy groups who want to privatize our public schools. Part of what I shared with you today is included in this new tool because I helped write it. But the content goes into greater depth. I’m not able to share any samples with you today or give you a website to go to, but if you leave me your card, I’ll send you the website address when it becomes available.

And I’d truly be remiss if I didn’t close out with some advice on how to craft your own messages, at least based on what’s worked for me. It’s what I call a four-cornerstone approach:

1. Don’t address the audience. Address the reader. In the marketing and advertising industry, which I’ve been part of for over 30 years, successful campaigns are not about moving whole audiences. They’re focused on persuading tiny segments. Typical promotions expect to get very small percentages of response, often 1 percent or less. So when communicating about education, target your message to an individual, such as a parent who’s considering enrolling her child in a charter, a taxpayer who no longer has children in schools but cares how his money is being spent, or a local official who doesn’t want to be exposed for putting children at risk. When you narrow the scope of your message you’re far more apt to increase its impact.

2. Emotion is more persuasive than facts. Do I really need to explain this? Look who we elected president. In a standoff of emotions vs. facts, emotions win every time. Research studies have found that people generally make decisions mostly on emotions and use facts and reason to back their decisions up. The best way to generate emotion is to tell stories. Also, use metaphors, but be sure to pick ones based on good values. Arne Duncan wanted us to buy into a Race to the Top, which was a terrible metaphor.

3. Start where people are, not where you want them to be. This is not the same thing as compromise. But what you can do is create an idea or course of action which will lead to what you want in the long run. Those who want to dismantle public education have been masterful at this. They persuaded school supporters to accept standardized testing of schools so that once a school can be deemed a failure it can be punished and closed. They made it acceptable for politicians of all stripes to support charter schools, which now makes it easier to argue that any education provider getting taxpayer funds is part of the public school system. We need to build these kind of slippery slopes for our side.

4. Refine and repeat. You have to whittle down arguments into digestible chunks that you repeat over and over. People too often make the mistake that they have to be relevant to the latest headline or change the messaging because people might be getting bored with it. But staying on message has a snowball effect over time.

My Story Ends

Finally, speaking of stories, I need to tell you the end of mine.

After my dad died, my mom never remarried and gradually withdrew from many of the activities she had enjoyed. Far from the family she left behind in Montana, with two of her sons living on opposite ends of the continent, her third son whose business frequently took him out of town, and her aging friendships dwindling every year, she spent most days alone except for a home care nurse who came three days a week and sons who could visit on the weekends and holidays. Attempts to persuade her to move closer to her family up north or move closer to one of her sons were in vein.

After her fourth fall, we realized she had to be institutionalized in a nursing home.

When I would visit her in the home we would sit in her room and watch TV. Her favorite channel was Fox News. During my visit, I would help her into her wheelchair and take her on a walk around the facility. Because residents were required to keep their doors open, as we wheeled through the corridors we could hear what others were watching. Nearly every TV was tuned to Fox News.

After two years in the home, my mom passed away quietly in her sleep one night.

As we were going through her things, we came across boxes of old photos. Some showed her with her classmates in their trim white nursing uniforms graduating from the University of Montana in Missoula.

There were photos from her years with the Nursing Corps too, showing her working with the trainees bound for the front. And we found photos of her in rank with the Corps, dressed in stately gray uniforms with epaulettes and caps, sometimes marching in holiday parades.

On the hunch these photographs had historical value, we sent them to a municipal museum in Missoula where they are now on public display for all to see.

[Stay in the fight for our public schools by following our education project, the Education Opportunity Network.]


The Big Lie Behind Trump’s Education Budget

Public school supporters are angry at President Trump’s budget proposal, which plans to cut funding to the Department of Education by 13 percent – taking that department’s outlay down to the level it was ten years ago. But the target for their anger should not be just the extent of the cuts but also how the cuts are being pitched to the public.

Trump’s education budget cuts are aimed principally at federal programs that serve poor kids, especially their access to afterschool programs and high-quality teachers.

At the same time, Trump’s spending blueprint calls for pouring $1.4 billion into school choice policies including a $168 million increase for charter schools, $250 million for a new school choice program focused on private schools, and a $1 billion increase for parents to send their kids to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The way the Trump administration is spinning this combination of funding cuts and increases – and the way nearly every news outlet is reporting them – is that there is some sort of strategically important balance between funding programs for poor kids versus “school choice” schemes, as if the two are equivalents and just different means to the same ends. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A False Equivalency

Shortly after Trump unveiled the plan, his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was quick to echo the false equivalency.

“The president promised to invest in our underserved communities and our increased investment in choice programs will do just that,” she is quoted in a report for U.S. News & World Report.

Another ardent proponent of vouchers and charter schools, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, praised the plan, calling it “a significant step forward” for “the needs of children and families instead of programs and districts.”

The message being spun out of Trump’s education budget is that it takes money away from those awful “adult interests” – like, you know, teachers to actually teach the students and buildings so students have somewhere to go after school to play sports, get tutored, or engage in music and art projects – in order to steer money to “the kids” who will get a meager sum of money to search for learning opportunities in an education system that is increasingly bereft of teachers and buildings.

Even competent education reporters are falling for this spin, writing that education policy is experiencing a “sea change in focus from fixing the failing schools to helping the students in the failing schools.”

However, there’s evidence that federally funded efforts like afterschool programs and class size reduction tend to lead to better academic results for low-income children, while the case for using school choice programs to address the education needs of poor kids is pretty weak.

The Weak Case For Choice

School voucher programs, like the ones Trump and DeVos seem intent on funding, are particularly ineffective ways to address the education problems of poor kids. Indeed, these programs seem to not serve the interests of poor kids at all.

Studies of voucher programs In Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona, and Nevada have found that most of the money from the programs goes to parents wealthy enough to already have their children enrolled in private schools.

Voucher programs rarely provide enough money to enable poor minority children to get access to the best private schools. And a new comprehensive study of vouchers finds evidence that vouchers don’t significantly improve student achievement. What they do pose is greater likelihood that students who are the most costly and difficult to educate – low-income kids and children with special needs – will be turned away or pushed out by private schools that are not obligated to serve all students.

Charter schools, another program the Trump budget wants to ramp up funding for, also don’t have a great track record for improving the education attainment of low-income students.

Perhaps the best case made for using charter schools to target the needs of low-income students comes from a study on the impact of charters in urban school systems conducted by research outfit CREDO in 2015. The study indeed found evidence of some positive impact of charters in these communities. But as my colleague at The Progressive Julian Vasquez Heilig points out, the measures of improvement, in standard deviations, are .008 for Latino students and .05 for African American students in charter schools.

“These numbers are larger than zero,” Heilig writes on his personal blog, “but you need a magnifying glass to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction which are far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools. They have 400 percent to 1000 percent more statistical impact than charters.”

Indeed, choice programs in all their forms, at least in how they are being promoted by the Trump administration and its supporters, seem more interested in diverting money away from public schools than they are intent on delivering some sort of education relief to the struggles of poor families.

Direct Harm To Teachers And Students

In the meantime, the negative, direct impact of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on students, especially those living in low-income communities, will be all too real.

In California, Trump’s proposed cuts to federal grants to hire and support more teachers would short the state $252 million at a time when the state is experiencing severe shortages in teachers.

Trump’s proposed cuts to afterschool programs in New Jersey would threaten the existence of these programs in 50 cites in some of the state’s most economically disadvantaged communities including Newark, Trenton, Paterson, and Union City.

The toll of Trump’s budget cuts on schools in South Florida would amount to $25 million in Broward County and $40 million in Miami-Dade. A program for teacher training would likely be eliminated, and afterschool programs in low-income communities could go away.

Politico interviewed state education leaders to learn the potential impact of Trump’s education budget and found concern across the political spectrum. Republican Oklahoma Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said cuts to federal grants for hiring and supporting teachers come at a time when the state is struggling to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies. And Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester worries about the loss of more than $15 million for afterschool programs.

An analysis by Think Progress, the advocacy center for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, looks at the impact of Trump’s proposed education cuts nationwide and tallies the impact of teacher grant program cuts and cuts to afterschool programs. “Trump’s budget would hinder every state’s ability to deliver critical services and resources to their K-12 students,” the analysis concludes, “impacting thousands of teachers and millions of students.”

The Long-Term Danger

While the direct, negative impact of Trump’s proposed budget cuts seems swift and certain, there is potentially a more long-term danger in perpetuating the myth that the budget trade-off of direct aid versus choice is a valid point of policy debate.

Telling the public that allocating education funding is a battle over whether to pay for direct programs for kids versus stoking the coffers of private schools and the charter school industry is not only disingenuous, it’s harmful to the most vulnerable students and families.

What Betsy DeVos Means When She Says ‘Public Schools’

Betsy DeVos once called public schools a “dead end,” but now that she’s U.S. Secretary of Education, she’s suddenly all for them.

At least that’s what she claims now.

During her nomination process, numerous reporters noted DeVos’s obvious bias against public schools. As education journalist Valerie Strauss reported on her blog at the Washington Post, DeVos “made some controversial statements” about public schools, “calling the traditional public education system a ‘dead end.’” Strauss noted DeVos had once said, “government truly sucks.”

But now she claims to be all for public schools, at least according to reports on her recent speech to a conference of big city school leaders. “I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating,” Education Week reports, “I support great public schools.”

Has DeVos had a sudden change of heart? That’s doubtful.

First, recall her first visit to a public school shortly after taking office. After her brief tour of Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, DC, DeVos castigated teachers for being in “receive mode … waiting to be told what they have to do.”

So what does her claim of a new-found fondness for “great public schools” really mean?

What Does Devos Mean By ‘Great Public School?’

First set aside the squishy modifier “great.”

There is widespread disagreement on what a “great” school is and how you can tell a school deserves that modifier.

Many states that were coerced into imposing school rating systems to supposedly determine, in an objective way, the quality of schools are in the process of dumping those rating systems. Recently, Michigan, DeVos’s home state, got rid of its rating system.

So what does DeVos mean by “public school?”

It turns out that’s becoming a squishy term too, at least if school choice advocates have their way.

Are Private Schools Public?

As NC Policy Watch, a left-leaning group in North Carolina, reports, the Tar Heel state has been targeted by school choice pressure groups to re-define what it means to be a public school.

The effort, according to education reporter Billy Ball, is “geared toward rebranding for-profit virtual charters and private school recipients of taxpayer-backed vouchers as public schools.”

Ball points to out-of-state school choice proponent Public School Options as an instigator in a campaign to advocate the state’s controversial online charter school, operated by private for-profit company K12 Inc., that’s been “troubled by high dropout rates and flagging academic numbers in its first two years of operation.”

Ball writes, “Public school supporters say the new push … is a misleading new tactic that seems intended to reclassify for-profit virtual charters and private schools as public institutions.”

Similarly, the Florida school choice advocacy group RefinED contends that school vouchers, which allow parents to transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense, make private schools part of the public school system. The group’s advocacy draws from recent think tank pieces and other sources to argue for “a new definition of public education, which is publicly funded and publicly accountable — and encompasses private schools.”

The intent here is to make you believe that private online schools and voucher funded schools are public schools just because they get public money.

Charter School Slippery Slope

Anyone who has been paying attention to the growth of the charter school industry could see this coming from a long way off.

For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools public schools.

But charter schools fail the test for what constitutes a truly public institution in many ways.

In a policy brief from the National Education Policy Center, “The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies that Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit,” Bruce Baker and Gary Miron detail how the very structure of the charter schools makes them very different from public schools.

Charters generally aren’t subject to the same disclosure laws as public officials. They can outsource school operations to private entities that can evade transparency laws for open meetings, public access to records, and financial disclosures. And charter organizations often claim exemptions to constitutional (and some statutory) protections that are customarily guaranteed to public school employees and students.

In my own report about charter operations in North Carolina, I find these schools regularly mask how their charitable dollars are spent and how much they profit from related real estate deals and education management firms. A law professor I interview argues that these schools are likely not in compliance with nonprofit law.

These important differences between charter schools and traditional public schools are not generally understood or appreciated by even the most knowledgeable people, which is why charter advocates put so much energy and resources in marketing their operations as “public” schools.

Now their argument is revealed as a slippery slope to claim any private operator can be a public school simply by getting public funds.

Parallel School Systems

None of the options school choice advocates promote – charter schools, voucher supported private schools, online schools operated by private companies – are part of a truly public school system.

They are instead, parallel school systems – each necessitating separate layers of bureaucracy and oversight and each siphoning money out of the taxpayer supported school system.

“When it comes to the education of a child,” DeVos said in her address to urban school leaders, “I am agnostic as to the delivery system, or the building in which it takes place. If a child is able to grow and flourish, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.”

That might sound like a really nice idea.

School choice proponents like DeVos often argue that all that matters is whether students who attend charters, online schools, and private academies do well on standardized tests and that parents are generally satisfied with these choices.

But this argument ignores the tax-paying public that deserves to know whether those outcomes are being achieved without wasting our public dollars, which more often than not, they probably are.

Yes, Schools Can Improve; Here’s How

In its waning hours, the Obama administration gave conservatives poised to take the reins in Washington, DC a huge gift when it issued a highly negative report on the results of its efforts to rescue the 5,000 lowest performing public schools across the nation.

“Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work,” reads the headline at the Washington Post, where education journalist Emma Brown writes, “One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results … Test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money.”

Conservatives are cashing in that gift as quickly as a winning lottery ticket, saying, as newly appointed US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos does in an op-ed for USA Today, that the Obama administration’s failure to boost typical school performance measures proves “throwing money at this problem” will not work.

“They tested their model, and it failed … miserably,” she told a roaring crowd at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.

The model she and President Trump are expected to push through Congress will provide parents more “school choice,” likely via some sort of school voucher program, and ups the ante for what the federal government is willing to “throw” at the nation’s troubled schools to $20 billion.

Conservative news outlets happily use Obama’s education policy failure as a pivot to support the scheme DeVos and Trump are proposing.

In response, Obama supporters are fighting a rear-guard defense of his policies, cherry-picking data and digging for anecdotes to justify continuance of what his administration did.

If these two factions constitute the “sides” squaring off over federal education policy in the coming years, we’re in for a dreadful debate.

The truth is, the policy agenda Obama set for the nation’s schools was never going to work.

When his administration introduced its “Education Blueprint” in 2010, research experts warned the policies guiding the agenda were poorly grounded in research or not based on any objective studies, and Obama never made any meaningful course corrections as evidence of his wayward agenda mounted throughout his presidency.

Similarly, voucher-funded, unbridled “school choice” DeVos and Trump want is a false road too, and numerous studies have found they have negative effects on students’ academic achievement.

Faced with these two utterly misguided directions for education policy, some argue for a “centrist solution,” as if meeting in the middle of two bad ideas can somehow produce something good.

Where both sides in the policy debate start is with the assumption that real progress can’t come from schools themselves but must be imposed from outside by folks who aren’t professional educators. Both sides believe at their core that traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation and that their processes are so ingrained they’re incapable of change.

What if that assumption is wrong? What if there are school districts that are bucking the “failure” narrative? What could our policy leaders and think tank “experts” learn from them?

Recently, I traveled to a school district to search for answers to those questions.

An Unlikely Success Story

At first glance, Long Beach Unified School District in California is an unlikely subject for a success story.

The school district is big – the third largest district in California, with 84 schools, 78,000 students, and nearly 3,300 teachers.

It’s student demographics resemble those of school districts that are regularly the lowest performing, with lots of racial, economic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. Only 13 percent of students are white, with the rest being mostly Hispanic (56 percent), African American (14 percent), and Asian (7 percent). Nearly 70 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch, the most commonly used measure for low income. And 23 percent are English Language Learners with another 6.5 percent recently designated English proficient.

Yet in 2015, LBUSD posted high school graduation rates of 81 percent, after a third consecutive year of improvement. According to a local news reporter, “Students of color at Long Beach schools are outperforming their peers countywide and statewide.” She notes. “At several LBUSD high schools, students of color now outperform their white counterparts in terms of graduation rates.”

According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times, Long Beach surpasses the rest of the state on key education measures such as daily average attendance rates, percent of high school graduates meeting state college level course requirements, and percent of non-white students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school.

A report from McKinsey & Company notes, LBUSD consistently increased its scores on the state’s school performance index, improving by 154 percent between 2004 and 2013, the last year the index was used before the state converted to Common Core State Standards.

In the first year Common Core-aligned exams were given in California, “Long Beach students performed nearly as well as the state average,” writes Lillian Mongeau for The Hechinger Report, despite the challenging demographics of the district. “Students from economically disadvantaged homes here performed slightly better than their economically disadvantaged peers statewide at nearly every tested grade level.”

The district boasts an impressive list of accolades on its website, as well.

Charters? What Charters?

Ask local school administrators and teachers about the LBUSD success story, and you’re not going to hear the same sort of rhetoric that fills the education debate on the national stage.

While LBUSD is a “district of choice,” meaning parents can request to transfer their children to any of the district’s schools, most families stick with their local school. As the LA Times article cited above reports, 75 percent of parents in elementary schools have their children attend their assigned school. That attendance preference drops somewhat in middle school to 62 percent and to 53 percent in high school.

And charter schools? There are only two in the district, and enrollment in charters has dropped from over 1,300 in 2011 to just 174 last school year, according to state records.

Because California adopted the Common Core, LBUSD uses the standards as well, but teachers I met showed little evidence they saw themselves as laboring under onerous standards. In virtually every interaction I had with teachers, the day-to-day work with students and their responses to the students’ interests and needs, rather than adherence to standards, was foremost in the conversation.

Also in Long Beach, student performance is frequently assessed at classroom, district, and state levels, but test scores are never used to rank schools and evaluate teachers, as Obama’s Education Department prescribed.

“The Long Beach Way”

Educators I met up and down the ranks of LBUSD refer to “The Long Beach Way” as a culture of continuous improvement that begins with a respect for teachers and a belief that internal accountability – rather than top-down mandates – is what drives meaningful change.

The Long Beach Way, I learned, is a relentless devotion to the process of “doing school” that puts the essentials of good education – curriculum and instruction and an intense devotion to the well-being of students – at the heart of the work rather than technocratic changes meant to solve problems quickly or disrupt the system.

And while the district has certain “non-negotiables,” real progress is expected to come from the bottom up through collaboration and team work rather than demands and compliance.

So how did Long Beach get here?

When I posed that question to former California State Superintendent Bill Honig, who encouraged me to come see these schools, he replied, “Long Beach could do it because it has a long history of people who put curriculum and instruction first and who were willing to put into place the supports for that.”

Honig maintains that any school district can do this. “But you have to have the clear belief to keep curriculum and instruction first. And you have to have a systems approach that resists simple solutions like firing all the teachers. Lots of folks new to education, especially those with a business background, don’t have that point of view.”

What does that point of view look like in practice? In the coming weeks, I’ll explore that question and look at how these practices are grounded in research and expertise, where else they bubble up in school districts around the country, and how they can be supported and advanced as an alternative to the sorry excuse for an education policy discussion we see playing out at the national level.

I hope you’ll join me.

Trump’s ‘School Choice’ Plan: Religious Fundamentalism At Taxpayer Expense


President Donald Trump is being praised for a change in tone in his recent address to Congress, but his belligerent attitude toward public education hasn’t changed a bit.

While it’s true he stopped short of repeating his claims that public schools are “broken” and a “government monopoly,” what Trump chose to highlight in his remarks about public schools was a story about a student who left them.

During his education remarks, Trump called out a guest of his in the audience, Denisha Merriweather, who, he says, “struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.”

Education writers were quick to jump on Trump’s shout-out to speculate that an education tax-credit proposal, like the one Merriweather took advantage of in Florida, would be just the sort of plan Trump would try to push through Congress.

“One of the easiest ways Trump could make good on his promise to expand [school choice],” writes Emma Brown for the Washington Post, “is to create a federal tax credit that incentivizes corporations to donate to state programs such as Florida’s. Such a credit could be embedded in a broader tax code overhaul that would need a simple majority in Congress to pass.”

Brown’s report tells you something about how these tax-credit programs work – they give individuals and corporations tax breaks when they donate to nonprofits which then distribute the money in the form of scholarships to private schools. But she doesn’t describe the school Merriweather transferred to and what type of education the public’s money ultimately paid for.

Some would ask, “Does it matter what kind of school Merriweather attended?” True, Merriweather’s story is admirable, and she should be commended for her accomplishments.

But whenever public money is involved, the interests of the common good, not just the fortunes of a single person, must be considered. And while Merriweather certainly benefited from an education tax-credit program, it would be dangerous to project her success story into a public policy intended for all children nationwide.

Poster Person For Privatization?

First, it should be noted this is hardly the first time Merriweather’s story has been used to tout tax-credit scholarship programs.

Merriweather is not simply an industrious student. She’s also a frequent contributor and presenter for Step Up For Students, the state-approved nonprofit in Florida that helps administer the education tax-credit program she benefitted from. According to her profile at the Step Up website, she has been featured prominently in this organization’s communications outreach since 2008. Although she isn’t listed as staff of Step Up, she has been employed as an intern.

Over the past three years, Merriweather has had the opportunity to tell her story in numerous media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, the Tampa Bay Times, and The 74 (a pro school choice media site funded by charter school and voucher advocates such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation). She’s also been the subject of pro school choice profiles in politically conservative news outlets. And after Merriweather was highlighted at Trump’s speech, she was interviewed by Fox News.

None of this is to take away from the sincerity of Merriweather’s writing or the validity of her lived experience. But it needs to be noted that few public school students have had such prominent venues to repeatedly tell their success stories.

Further, the school Merriweather attended through the school choice program Trump champions is no ordinary school.

Religious Fundamentalism At Taxpayer Expense

The private school Merriweather attended and graduated from is the Esprit De Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville which she has described in testimony she gave last year to a U.S. House Committee as “a church based school, a church that I actually attended.”

According to the Esprit de Corps website, the “vision for the school was birthed from the mind of God in the heart of Dr. Jeannette C. Holmes-Vann, the Pastor and Founder of Hope Chapel Ministries, Inc.” The education philosophy guiding the school is based on “a return to a traditional educational model founded on Christian principles and values. In accordance with this vision, each component of the school was purposefully selected and designed.”

A significant “component” of the Esprit de Corps school is its adherence to a fundamentalist Christian curriculum. Its official listing in a Jacksonville directory of private schools describes its education program as a “spiritual emphasis and biblical [sic] view, which permeates the A-Beka curriculum.”

“A Beka is one of the most widely used K-12 curriculum series for home schooling and private Christian schools,” Rachel Tabachnick explains to me in an email. “This includes many private schools receiving public dollars through voucher and tax-credit programs.”

Tabachnick has collected textbooks used by voucher and corporate tax-credit schools for over ten years, including curriculum from A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press.

In an investigative article for Alternet in 2011, Tabachnick writes, “Throughout the K-12 curriculum, A Beka consistently presents the Bible as literal history and science. This includes teaching young earth creationism and demeaning other religions and other Christian faiths including Roman Catholicism.”

An A Beka history text she reviews teaches that “socialist propaganda” exaggerated the Great Depression “so that Franklin Delano Roosevelt could pass New Deal legislation” and that the Vietnam War “divided the country into the ‘hawks who supported the fight against Communism, and doves, who were soft on Communism.'”

Tabachnick quotes a fourth-grade A Beka text that celebrates President Ronald Reagan’s presidency under a banner of “A Return to Patriotism and Family Values.” In describing President Bill Clinton’s administration, an A Beka high school history text calls First Lady Hilary Clinton’s effort to overhaul health care a “plan for socialized medicine” and describes Vice President Al Gore as “known for his radical environmentalism.”

Christ Is History, Africans Are Inferior

In her emails to me, Tabachnick shares excerpts from a newer edition of A Beka’s textbook on “History and Civil Government” that teaches, “The first advent of Jesus Christ to earth – His incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – is the focal point of history. History began with God and His act of Creation. It climaxed with God’s act of redemption.” (emphasis original)

In the current edition of A Beka’s 10th grade history text “World History and Cultures in Christian Perspective” Tabachnick shares with me, “modern liberalism” is described as “the desire to be free from absolute standards and morals, especially the Scriptures.”

From this text, high school students like Denisha Merriweather learn, “The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a cultural breakdown that threatened to destroy the very roots of Western civilization. The cause of this dissolution was the idea or philosophy known as liberalism.” (emphasis original)

The curriculum used by Esprit de Corps also taught Merriweather and her African American classmates about the innate inferiority of the African continent and its people.

“The textbooks teach the narrative that the people of African nations descended from Noah’s son Ham and that Ham’s descendant Nimrod led the rebellion against God by building the Tower of Babel,” Tabachnick tells me. This Biblically supported lesson is often referred to as “the curse of Ham,” which has historically been a primary justification for slavery among Southern Christians, according to numerous sources.

In the A Beka text “History and Civil Government,” Adam and Eve are referred to as “the parents of humanity” and racial variations in human kind are described as the result of “recessive traits” due to “(1) a rapidly changing environment, (2) a small population, (3) and extensive inbreeding.”

“Current A Beka texts also falsely claim that only ten percent of the population of Africa is literate and that literacy rates may drop further because of communists shutting down mission schools,” Tabachnick tells me.

A Realistic View?

On its company website, A Beka claims its textbooks teach “a realistic view of time, government, geography, and economics based on eternal truths.”

Of course, parents can decide for themselves if this is the kind of “realistic view” they want their children to learn. But why should taxpayer money pay for it?

According to a 2015 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Florida’s tax-credit school voucher programs, including the one Merriweather took advantage of, have become a cash cow for many of the state’s private schools – sending out about $544 million to families of nearly 100,000 students in the state.

Of the roughly 2,300 private schools in Florida, more than 1,500 accept voucher money, and of these voucher-accepting schools, about 45 percent rely on them for at least half of their students. About 70 percent of these schools are religiously affiliated, “including some where religion is a central focus.”

Now, Trump wants to roll that out nationwide.

Trump And DeVos Have A Deceptive Scheme To Push School Vouchers

Since President Trump picked Betsy DeVos to be his new U.S. Secretary of Education, there’s been lots of speculation in the media that his administration, with his secretary out front, would push for a school voucher program that would allow families to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a sum of money they could use to pay for tuition to send their kids to private schools, even ones that are religion based.

Others scoffed at that notion, arguing that getting a voucher program passed through Congress would be too difficult.

But if new reports out this week are credible, and they appear to be, a school voucher program is indeed on the president’s agenda – only it’s not being called that. There are reasons for the deception, and it’s important for progressives to understand how to frame Trump’s scheme before the public debate starts.

As Poltico reports, “The Trump administration is considering a first-of-its-kind federal tax credit scholarship program that would channel billions of dollars to families from working-class households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools.”

What is a tax credit program for education, and why is it just another name for vouchers?

As Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa explains, “Tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit of some kind, in exchange for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to children. So, unlike vouchers, they don’t involve the government directly providing financial support to parents for school choice.”

But what makes tax credit scholarships the same as vouchers?

In his 2008 book, Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, coined the term “neovoucher” to explain how tax credit programs accomplish the same thing as vouchers, only in a more convoluted way.

In a blog post for the Washington Post, Welner explains, tax credit scholarship programs are a “money-laundering mechanism” that inserts into the transaction a third party – often called a school tuition organization (STO). Instead of taxpayer money being distributed directly to parents as vouchers, credits are issued by the state when tax deductible donations go to an STO. That credit then becomes scholarship money for parents to pay for private school tuition.

So whether the plan is for tax credits or vouchers, in either case, public funding is redirected from public schools to private institutions, and the impact on funding available for public education is the same.

There are reasons for the Trump administration’s deception.

As Welner notes in another blog post for the Post, “Generally speaking, Americans know what vouchers are. Cleveland and Milwaukee have had conventional voucher plans for decades.” Welner should have added Washington, DC to that list of long-standing voucher programs as well.

So the track record for vouchers is well known. And it’s not particularly good.

As education historian Diane Ravitch writes, despite years of offering vouchers to parents, “those school districts are among the lowest performing in the nation on national tests. … When the taxpayers’ precious dollars are divided among two or three sectors, none of them flourishes.”

Further, the general public generally has rejected vouchers every time they’ve been put to a test at the ballot box. Ravitch notes, “When Ms. DeVos and her husband Richard led a movement to change the Michigan state constitution to permit vouchers for religious schools in the year 2000, the referendum was defeated by 69-31%. Even in deep red Utah, the public rejected vouchers overwhelmingly in 2007. Florida was the last state to reject vouchers, in a 2012 vote deceptively named the Religious Freedom Act; it was defeated by 58-42%.”

So to circumnavigate the lousy track record of vouchers and avoid the problem of their widespread public disapproval, school privatization advocates have devised education tax credit programs. But be aware, just as these programs have the same essential ends in mind as school vouchers, they also have the same devastating impact on public schools.

As veteran education journalist Valerie Strauss explains on her blog at the Post, in the 17 states that offer some kind of education tax credits, there are numerous examples of how the programs harm public schools and help spread fraud and abuse in public education systems. Strauss points to a tax credit scholarship program in Florida that sparked “a cottage industry of fraud” and a more recent report from Florida about a “school for students with autism that received money from two tax credit programs in Florida that was abruptly closed after its leaders were charged with Medicaid fraud.”

Numerous studies by education tax credit advocates claiming these programs save money have been thoroughly refuted. And the evidence they drain public education funding continues to mount.

Arizona has perhaps the nation’s most extensive and generous education tax credit program. The program has led to an enormous outflow of funding from public schools.

As an Arizona news outlet reports, the state allows qualified parents to set up “empowerment scholarship accounts” that are funded by STOs to provide families with debit cards worth about $5,200 a year to use on tuition at private schools, many which are religion based. However, as the reporter notes, public schools in Arizona get about $4,200 per pupil from the state, so each $5,200 debit card costs the state general fund an additional $1,000 for every child who leaves a public school for a private or religious school.

Despite the drain on Arizona public school coffers, lawmakers in the state want to expand the tax credit program to include more families, a move that would lead to an additional $24 million cost to taxpayers annually and potentially many millions more, according to the Arizona Republic.

So should Trump’s ideas for a tax credit scholarship program develop into a proposal, and the details become clearer, just remember a school voucher program by any name is still a school voucher program. And it should be dead on arrival in Congress.

DeVos’s Stumbles Right Out Of The Gate Are Nothing To Laugh About

The Trump administration’s national security scandals may have obscured Betsy DeVos’s rough start as the new Secretary of Education, but her stumbles right out the gate reveal disturbing characteristics of her leadership.

Unfortunately, the least significant gaffe is the one that has gotten the most notoriety so far. As Politico reports, “In quoting civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, the Department of Education on Sunday sent out a tweet misspelling his name as “DeBois.” And then it sent out an apology that misspelled the word ‘apologies'” as “apologizes.”

What’s even more embarrassing: The misspelled shout out to Du Bois took place during Black History Month.

As part of a presidential administration that’s already distinguished itself for prominent typos in President Donald Trump’s tweets and on official White House releases, it’s perhaps not surprising that DeVos and her team would also be sloppy on social media. But she is head of the Department of Education. The public mocking is to be expected.

Nevertheless, there are gaffes, and then there are disturbing omens of what may be in store for the nation’s schools under the Trump-DeVos regime.


Perhaps most ominous is the report, from an outlet focused on developmental disability news, that a day after DeVos took her oath of office, content relating to IDEA disappeared from the Education Department’s website. IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is the federal government’s program that guarantees students with disabilities and their parents have access to free education that is appropriate for their needs.

DeVos, recall, had one of her most difficult moments during her rocky confirmation hearing when she became “confused” about enforcing IDEA. While answering a question about the federal program, she promised that under her leadership its enforcement would be “up to the states.”

“Officials said the issue should be no cause for alarm…nothing more than a technical glitch,” according to reporter Michelle Diament. And to be fair, the decision to take down the material likely came before DeVos took office. But Diament also notes, “Last month, nearly every disability reference was removed from the White House website after the Trump administration took over. To date, the online presence of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. contains just a handful of references to disabilities.”

A week later after the disappearance, with no sign of the ” glitch” being fixed, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Patty Murray (D-Mo.) issued a statement demanding that the department explain why content “dedicated to empowering and assisting students with disabilities and their families” had become deactivated and requesting its restoration.

So far, the department hasn’t replied.

DeVos’s Pencil Privilege

Speaking of glitches, DeVos also found herself embroiled in controversy again when, on her first day on the job, she said on her personal social media outlet, in what she must have thought was a safe and funny tweet, “Day 1 on the job is done, but we’re only getting started. Now where do I find the pencils? :)”

“Not in the thousands of public schools that can barely afford supplies. Looking forward to you cleaning that lil issue up,” came the first retort, and the tweet thread didn’t get any nicer after that as hundreds of teachers and public school advocates blasted her for the remark.

Why would what the billionaire-turned-bureaucrat thought was likely a harmless comment receive such invective? Anyone taking the reins of the Department of Education, or who just happens to be paying attention, should know the answer to that question.

As many of the teachers responding to her comment reminded her, DeVos should know that schools have become so chronically starved of resources, most teachers have to buy a lot of their own supplies — even pencils. “Virtually all teachers wind up paying out of pocket for supplies,” reports Money magazine, based on the most recent survey asking teachers about their supply purchases. “On average, most spent nearly $500 last year, and one in 10 spent $1,000 or more. All told, a total of $1.6 billion in school supply costs is shifted from parents — or, increasingly, from cash-strapped districts — onto teachers themselves.”

The cost of school supplies has shifted to teachers because education funding in most places in the country is in a funding crisis.

The nation has drastically cut education funding since the Great Recession, and studies show most schools aren’t getting the same level of funding they got in 2008. Further, schools that often need funding the most, because they serve low-income and other children that cost the most to educate, often get the least.

But it’s quite likely DeVos — who grew up in privilege, married into even greater wealth and attended private schools filled with students with similar backgrounds — may not actually know what it’s like in the schools where most American parents send their children. Especially since she lives in a massive compound on 100 acres of lakefront property. She and her husband Dick DeVos own three vacation homes in Windsor, Florida along with other vacation residences.

Taking Refuge on the Right

As a sign that the controversy she continues to stir may be getting to her, DeVos sought refuge in a media circle she likely feels more comfortable in.

As Education Week reports, “In her first print and radio interviews since taking the helm,” DeVos turned to — not to outlets that her detractors are apt to listen to, nor to journalists that could be described as “neutral” — but to the safe womb of right-wing media in her home state of Michigan.

For her first interview in print media, DeVos chose an opinion page editor from the Michigan-based Detroit News, which endorsed her for secretary. For her first radio interview, she chose Paul W. Smith, a conservative talk show host in Detroit who also occasionally substitutes for Rush Limbaugh.

The most telling thing about both interviews is DeVos’s reaffirmation of the ideology that has been the focal point of many of the concerns about her.

When asked by Detroit News deputy editorial page editor Ingrid Jacques about what she hopes for her legacy as Secretary, DeVos replies that what she wants most is to ensure her leadership has “allowed students across this country, particularly those who are today struggling most, to find and go to a school where they are going to thrive in and grow and become everything they hope to be.”

In her radio interview with Smith, DeVos states her goal is to ensure that all schools “meet the need of every child that they serve, and in the cases that they don’t, parents and students should have other alternatives.”

DeVos seems to have little to say about what she intends to do to improve the schools we already have. Her emphasis on encouraging parents and students to “find” new schools and creating those “alternatives” is why critics of DeVos continue to worry she is all about abandoning existing schools and replacing them with what she prefers to see instead.

Ideological Warfare?

Given her lack of experience with public education and its governance, it’s perhaps understandable DeVos would not be very knowledgeable about policy ideas that have helped educators transform schools our children are already in.

But what’s most concerning is that she doesn’t seem the least bit interested in those policy ideas either.

In fact, her other favorite talking point is to refer to public education as a “status quo” needing to be assailed from the outside, as if she believes changing public education is something that needs to be done to it, not with it.

That DeVos views education more so through this political lens — a lens bequeathed to her from her background of privilege and wealth — rather than the lens of wise public policy portends a near future of ideological warfare over basic education justice in the country, for example, over whether the rights of students with disabilities are upheld.

From what we’ve seen of Betsy DeVos so far, that’s the most disturbing sign of what’s to come. Even if she can’t spell.

Progressives Lost The Vote On DeVos But Won Something Else

Betsy DeVos may have won her contest in the Senate to become the new U.S. Secretary of Education, but her opposition wasn’t the only thing that went down to defeat that day.

For decades, federal education policies have been governed by a “Washington Consensus” that public schools are effectively broken, especially in low-income communities of color, and the only way to fix them is to apply a dose of tough love and a business philosophy of competition from charter schools and performance measurements based on standardized tests.

Since the 1990s, this consensus among Democrats and Republicans has enforced all kinds of unproven “reform” mandates on schools, and by 2012, as veteran education reporter Jay Mathews of The Washington Post noted that year, the two parties were “happily copying each other” on education.

“Democrats have in recent years sounded – and acted – a lot like Republicans in advancing corporate education reform, which seeks to operate public schools as if they were businesses, not civic institutions,” writes Valerie Strauss, the veteran education journalist who blogs for the Washington Post. “By embracing many of the tenets of corporate reform — including the notion of ‘school choice’ and the targeting of teachers and their unions as being blind to the needs of children – they helped make DeVos’s education views, once seen as extreme, seem less so.”

But with the election of President Donald Trump and the ascension of DeVos to secretary, that consensus appears dead.

“She would start her job with no credibility,” Education Week quotes Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a secretary of education who is likely to succeed only in further dividing us on education issues.”

“The DeVos vote reflected the tribal, dysfunctional, polarized nature of our politics,” writes Woodrow Wilson Center senior scholar Linda Killian in USA Today. “It is a harbinger of things to come.”

But what looks like the death of a political consensus on education could be the beginning of something else: an opportunity for progressives to press a new education agenda. Here’s what should they do.

Build On ‘The Perfect Storm’

Public education advocates have long been exasperated with progressives.

“When will ‘progressives’ defend public education?” fumed education activist Anthony Cody nearly two years ago. Cody – who helped organize the largest public protest event in support of public education to date and co-founded the Network for Public Education whose membership recently passed the 300,000 mark – lamented that while big money, astroturf groups such as Democrats for Education Reform continue to present the left as a partner of charter schools and corporate reform, progressive organizations generally remain silent on the issues.

These organizations “need to wake up,” Cody argued.

Well, consider them awake.

The DeVos nomination motivated an array of progressive groups to engage in the unprecedented outpouring of opposition to her. Similarly, civil rights organizations, that often differ with public education activists on charter schools and school vouchers, led a strong effort to oppose DeVos.

“DeVos’ nomination was simply the perfect storm for progressives and members of the resistance to seize upon,” observes Lucia Graves at The Guardian. “The voter outrage was the triumph of grassroots organizing. And that is worth celebrating – despite the outcome.”

Now that progressive organizations are engaged in the fight against DeVos, public school advocates must continue to reach out to them and engage them in the ongoing fight against privatization DeVos will lead. In turn, public school advocates must also be ready to step outside the education silo and take up other causes progressives care about, such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, that have impacts both inside and outside of schools.

Turn Education Into A Wedge Issue

For years, big money donors have been successful at keeping many Democratic party candidates in the charter school camp. Opposition to DeVos may disrupt that loyalty.

For instance, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has been an ardent supporter of charters and vouchers and has deep ties to the charter school industry, yet he voted against DeVos.

Booker, who many consider a possible presidential contender in 2020, joined DeVos on the board of Alliance for School Choice, when he was mayor of Newark.* In 2012, he gave a speech at a meeting held by the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group DeVos founded and once chaired. Both organizations advocate using taxpayer dollars for charter, private, and religious schools, which DeVos will surely champion. Yet Booker sided with his fellow Democrats against her.

Westcoast billionaire Eli Broad is another prominent Democrat who advocates for school choice but strongly opposed DeVos. “This is more than just one billionaire school activist … going against another billionaire school activist,” Strauss writes in another of her blog posts. “His opposition underscores what has been obvious for some time: that the opposition to DeVos goes far beyond the teachers’ unions.”

Of course, not all Democrats who’ve been supportive of the corporate reform movement made strong public statements in opposition to DeVos.

As reporters for Education Week note, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who once received praise from DeVos for his support for charter schools, was reluctant to publically criticize her during her nomination.

Cuomo recently announced his intention to abolish the cap that limits the number of charter schools in New York City, despite Mayor Bill De Blasio’s strong opposition – a proposal Secretary DeVos will certainly praise. Given the Democratic party’s total antipathy for DeVos, public school advocates can now easily pivot from opposing DeVos to opposing Cuomo and smear him with her negative brand.

Sensing an opportunity to do just that, the Alliance for Quality Education, a public school advocacy group that frequently battles the governor, issued a statement opposing Cuomo’s recent education proposals, including lifting the charter cap, immediately after DeVos was confirmed. It stated, “Betsy DeVos is a disastrous choice that spurred massive public resistance to her nomination. In New York State it is time for resistance to focus on Governor Cuomo … Just as New Yorkers have been leaders in the fight to resist Trump and dump DeVos, we will now fight back against Cuomo and his attacks on public education.”

Press For Positive Change

Resistance is all well and good. But my colleague Richard Eskow is correct when he writes, “In today’s political climate, ‘opposing’ – or worse, merely ‘withstanding’ – isn’t enough. It will take a countervailing force for change to stop Trump and the Republicans.”

What’s the countervailing force public school advocates need? Progressive Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives recently answered that.

As Politico reports, on the same day of the final vote on DeVos in the Senate,  Democrats in the House issued a new Progressive Education Agenda. The agenda was drafted by California Democratic Representative Mark Takano and endorsed by the House Public Education Caucus.

The Agenda begins as it should, proclaiming education as a “fundamental civil right in the United States of America” and calling for education approaches that address equity in the public school system and considering “both the instruction our children receive and the conditions they need – in and out of the classroom – to succeed.”

In a complete departure from the corporate reform ideas Democrats have embraced, the Agenda completely abandons the language of competition and performance measurement and instead calls for “defending and investing in our public schools as universally accessible and inherently democratic institutions.”

Among the 6 “policy goals” in the agenda are proposals to expand access to early childhood education, ensure equitable access and resources at all grade levels, and support educators and their training programs.

Certainly, those are positive reforms all progressives can get behind.

Not A Time For Compromise

The torrent of protests that have greeted the advent of the Trump regime is evidence of a popular unwillingness to compromise with the nation’s new leadership.

Is there any reason to believe this unwillingness to compromise doesn’t extend to education?

The Progressive Education Agenda Takano and his colleagues are pushing “reveals the wide gap between progressive Democrats and Betsy DeVos in terms of both education policy priorities and expertise,” states a press release from Takano’s office. Good. The gap needs to be wide.

* Correction: Sen. Booker was on the board of Alliance for School Choice years before he became mayor of Newark. His name first appears on the board of American Education Reform Council, which eventually became ASC, in their 2002 990 form. He became mayor in 2006 and was still on the board of ASC in their 2008 990 tax calendar year.

Betsy DeVos Likely To Spread Quack Science Instead Of Teaching The Real Thing

After a rocky confirmation hearing in Senate committee, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, cleared to the full Senate on a vote that strictly followed party lines. But now, two Republican Senators who voted DeVos out of committee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska,  say they can’t back DeVos in a full Senate vote. Education Week reporters say a final vote has been called for next week, so her nomination is still up in the air.

Senators, including the two maverick Republicans, who say they will vote no on DeVos most often say their opposition comes from her lack of qualifications and her poor grasp of policy issues. But there’s lots more to DeVos’s whacky views of education.

Much has been written about DeVos’s deep ties to evangelical Christianity and her commitment to push an education agenda to “advance God’s Kingdom.” But supporters of DeVos insist her religious devotion reflects concerns about children and what’s best for the public and not an intention to “focus on curriculum issues like evolution and creationism,” according to this story in the Washington Post.

But recent revelations in major news outlets should raise alarms about DeVos’s views on science and how they may influence her decision-making on national education policy.

In her charitable giving, her financial investments, and the rhetoric she uses to express her intentions as secretary, DeVos has exhibited a propensity to favor beliefs ground in quack science over the real thing.

Christian-Based ‘Critical Thinking’

One of those concerns is the affinity DeVos has long had for organizations that push “intelligent design,” an idea linked to creationist beliefs that the universe and life must have been created by a superior intelligence.

As Annie Waldman reports for independent news outlet Propublica, DeVos and her family donated more than a $1 million to The Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based Christian legal group that represented a school district being sued because its conservative school board insisted ninth-grade students be taught “the theory of evolution was flawed and that intelligent design was an alternative.”

Waldman also notes donations the DeVos family has made to Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based evangelical group that “produced a religious video series with one episode focused on intelligent design and Darwinian evolution critiques.”

Senators have not asked DeVos many questions about her views on science. However, during her confirmation hearing, DeVos revealed a lot when she responded to a question from Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) who wanted to know if she would oppose education policies based on junk science. Her evasive response conspicuously used the term “critical thinking” which is code word for pushing intelligent design in school curriculum.

As Waldman explains, DeVos and other advocates of intelligent design disguise their religious intentions to undermine evolution as support for “critical thinking” in schools. They insist presenting evolution as science fact is “dogmatic,” and what teachers must do instead is present “alternative views” like intelligent design and require students to sort it out for themselves

Their support for school vouchers, another favorite passion of DeVos’s, also advances religious-based instruction as it diverts millions in taxpayer money to private schools, including religious schools that teach creationist ideas like intelligent design.

DeVos’s use of the “critical thinking” code word coincides with a “new wave of anti-evolution bills” being introduced by state Republican lawmakers across the country, according to The Hill.

“About 70 similar measures questioning evolution have been introduced in states across the country,” the report says, all modeled on the idea that schools should present “alternatives to evolution” in “objective” ways that invite discussion and “critical thinking.”

The devotion DeVos has to junk science isn’t confined to intelligent design.

Biofeedback Cures With Biblical Inspiration

As the New York Times reports, DeVos and her family have invested heavily in a retail chain that claims to use biofeedback to improve “brain performance” and treat depression and developmental disabilities such as ADHD and autism.

As Times reporters Sheri Fink, Steve Eder, and Matthew Goldstein write, DeVos and her husband, Dick, are the chief investors in Neurocore, a business that operates eight centers in Michigan and Florida that claim to “retrain the brains” of “children and adults with ADHD, anxiety, depression, autism and other psychological and neurological diagnose.”

Neurocore’s techniques, the article notes, “are not considered standards of care for the majority of the disorders it treats, including autism,” and the Times reporters consulted “nearly a dozen child psychiatrists and psychologists with expertise in autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, [who] expressed caution regarding some of Neurocore’s assertions, advertising, and methods.”

Times reporters note DeVos insists on retaining her investment in the company, “which she valued at $5 million to $25 million,” should she be confirmed. But her commitment to Neurocore may have more to do with something other than her financial investment.

As a Michigan-based blogger reports, Neurocore’s ideas, like many of DeVos’s fascinations, have “Christian fundamentalist roots.”

The blogger, who goes by Miss Fortune, points out the original name of Neurocore was Hope 139 which Fortune calls “a dog-whistle reference to Psalm 139” and Christian fundamentalist beliefs. As evidence, Fortune points to a press release from when Hope 139 debuted that describes the company’s mission to “assist each individual in reaching his or her God-given cognitive potential.”

Fortune notes, “Psalm 139 has been a byword of the anti-abortion movement.” And as further investigation bears out, the Bible verse is often presented as proof that life begins at conception.

Why DeVos’s Views On Science Matter

So would DeVos, who in her confirmation hearings, exhibited an acute misunderstanding of the federal government’s role in supporting the education of students with disabilities, promote quack science ideas from outfits like Neurocore to the nation’s schools?

We’ve seen the federal government promote these kinds of completely unfounded ideas before.

Although the Constitution prohibits the federal government from creating school curriculum, the department DeVos may be leading has considerable influence and money to influence science education programs in K-12 schools. The Education Department spends millions to fund over 30 science-related grant programs influencing research and training, instruction for student with learning disabilities, access for special student populations, and STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math).

And while it’s true new federal legislation curbs some of the powers of the education secretary and hands over more responsibilities to states, DeVos would likely be ideologically aligned with a great many conservative Republican governors who have bought into the same bizarre ideas she has.

Last, should she and Trump be successful in their plan to provide states $20 billion for “school choice” programs that include vouchers for religious schools, she may be completely unperturbed to learn, as a consequence of her decisions, some of that taxpayer money is being used to teach students “alternate facts” in science classes.

What Would You Do?

In an op-ed on a popular science news website, Ann Reid and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education fear Devos as US Secretary of Education would “dilute science instruction in schools.”

They argue, “A few loud voices dismissing science can be enough to intimidate teachers into diluting their treatment of evolution and climate change, permanently short-changing a generation of science learners.

“Put yourself in a teacher’s shoes,” they suggest, and imagine bringing up a subject such as evolution, that is based on factual evidence, and then have it questioned by students – and then potentially by their parents and the district’s school board –  who have heard from political leaders, including the secretary of education, that your lesson plans could use a little more “critical thinking.”

What would you do?

How Trump’s Education Scheme Will Screw Rural People Who Elected Him

Left-leaning people everywhere got a big yuk when Betsy DeVos, during her confirmation hearing for US Secretary of Education, cited “potential grizzlies” as a reason to allow guns at schools. As evidence for her assertion, she referenced an earlier exchange she’d had with Wyoming Republican Senator Mike Enzi who had told her about a rural school in his state that needed a fence to protect the school from bears.

Turns out the school doesn’t have a gun and doesn’t seem to have any plans to acquire one, which makes DeVos’ remarks all the more ridiculous.

But there was another exchange DeVos had with a Republican senator from a rural state, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, that deserves far more attention because of what it reveals about how the Trump administration’s education policies will screw rural families who helped vote him into office.

Murkowski shared with the committee that 400 Alaska teachers had met with were to voice concerns about the DeVos nomination because of her agenda to promote “options” to public schools, such as charter schools and vouchers to attend private schools. In these rural communities, where there may be as few as 60 students total, there simply are no other options other than a public school.

Repeatedly, the Senator asked the billionaire school choice proponent for her “commitment to public education, particularly to our rural students who have no choices” and for her “assurance” to states with rural schools that education policies in the Trump administration would not “undermine public schools.”

Republican senators aren’t the only ones in Congress who are concerned that DeVos and Trump and their allegiance to “school choice” will harm rural public school districts. As Politico reports, “Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said on CNN … that he’s ‘troubled’ by DeVos’ views on public education. ‘Public education is everything we have,’ he said, adding that vouchers and charter schools wouldn’t work in a rural state like West Virginia with a spread-out population and limited resources.”

These lawmakers have good reasons for their concerns.

Rural schools make up more than half of the school districts in America and serve around a quarter of the nation’s students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But rural schools are in trouble.

Dropout rates for rural students are significantly worse than in urban districts, suspension rates are higher, school facilities are frequently lower quality, funding is disproportionally lower, and reading proficiency levels are sometimes below statewide averages.

“Compared to students in urban or suburban schools, students in rural areas and small towns are less likely to attend college,” a recent article in The Atlantic notes.

None of these problems will be solved by creating more charter schools and using vouchers to siphon off even more students and resources. In fact, that option will only make things worse.

People who live in rural communities know this and are speaking out against charter schools and voucher programs coming into their school districts.

In Oklahoma, according to a state-based independent news outlet, charter school advocates who want to expand from urban centers, such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, out to small rural communities are encountering resistance from “district school leaders and parent and teacher groups, who say charter school growth will erode state and local financial support of district schools.”

This resistance is popping up in rural North Carolina communities too. Many of the school choice skeptics in that state have no doubt noticed what happened in Haywood County, a rural mountain community in the western part of the state, where a local public school beloved by the community suddenly closed due to slow, steady enrollment drops. Administrators of the district’s schools “attribute their two-year 400-student decline to brick and mortar charter schools as well as virtual charter schools opening in the area.”

Voucher programs are also drawing the ire of rural communities.

In Nevada, a voucher-like program that gives parents the choice to tap into their children’s public education funding to pay for private or religiously-affiliated school tuition has been stymied by the State Supreme Court, but state officials are concocting a work around to evade the court order. Many parents aren’t happy about that. Those parents and public officials who live in rural communities note that applicants for the vouchers tend to live in the most affluent, urban parts of the state. But for parents who live in small towns and remote crossroads, “there is no choice,” an official from a rural community told a local news outlet. “It doesn’t help [these] parents at all.”

In Texas, where state lawmakers are attempting to enact a voucher program similar to the one being pushed in Nevada, opposition to “choice” is coming from “republicans from rural Texas districts,” according to an Austin news channel. One opposing voice interviewed in the report is a superintendent of a rural district with only 438 students where the local school has been the “soul of the town” for more than 100 years.

“Rural citizens tend to be highly involved with their schools,” says Karen Eppley, a university professor and expert on rural education. “The schools are often the social anchor of the community, and they provide services not available elsewhere, like sports, summer lunch programs, night classes, and food pantries. They also tend to be major employers.”

In an interview with Eppley in The Atlantic, she argues, ” School choice is really complicated in rural areas … When you pull those students out, then students who have remained in the host school are at a disadvantage … It can be financially devastating to schools that are already operating on the proverbial shoestring.”

What’s sadly ironic is that these rural communities that will perhaps be most devastated by the school choice plan DeVos and Trump are about to foist on the nation are the very communities that voted overwhelmingly Trump into office.

According to Pew Research, “National exit poll[s] documented how Trump and his populist message disproportionately appealed to both white men and women living in rural America.”

The “anxieties that are more deeply felt by rural whites” according to Pew, propelled Trump to large margins of victory in small towns and rural communities. And the gap between the consciousness of these voters and their white peers in the cities and suburbs is growing larger with every passing year.

Of course, prominent voices on the left have become famous for pointing out that white rural Americans often vote against their self-interest. But does that mean they’ll support education policies that are counter to the best interests of their children too?

Someone should ask them that.