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In Disasters’ Wake, Public Schools And Educators Defy DeVos’s Attacks On The ‘System’

A favorite talking point of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is to say that conversations about education should not be about “systems and buildings” but about “individual students.” It’s a skillfully crafted soundbite designed to cast schools as oppressive bureaucracies that limit the education opportunities available to children and families. It also differentiates schools from other essential public infrastructure such as fire and police protection, sanitation, and roads.

Few people question the need to have a fire department or an office responsible for transportation, but DeVos’s scripted phrase is an attempt to convince us that education has become a consumer good we can pick up anywhere and that schools are relics of a bygone era when we didn’t have the internet and other means of conveying knowledge.

But before DeVos casually dismisses the need to have public education institutions across the country, she should look at the vital role schools and educators have played in responding to the string of devastating natural disasters that hit America this year.

When Hurricane Irma strafed Florida, over 6.5 million citizens were ordered to evacuate their homes in the flood zones. Thousands found shelter in schools. Broward County, north of Miami, converted 21 schools into shelters to take in those having to flee Fort Lauderdale and other coastal towns. Palm Beach County schools took in 17,000 evacuees. Sarasota schools welcomed over 19,000 refugees. In Tampa-Hillsborough County, 45 of the district’s schools became storm relief centers, sheltering nearly 30,000 evacuees.

To protect residents unable to get out of town, Miami-Dade County converted 42 schools to shelters. In Monroe County, home to Key West which took the brunt of the storm, the local school became a “refuge of last resort” for those unable to get off the islands.

In most cases, the people who staffed the schools became the volunteers in the shelters, “working around the clock to feed evacuees, keep the shelter clean, and provide other supports,” Education Week reports.

Teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, social workers, and other school staff – many who are unionized workers – were the “unsung heroes” of the storm relief effort, reports the Miami Herald. “Before and during the storm, and into the aftermath, school employees worked tirelessly, helping convert places of learning into safe havens for storm evacuees.

When Irma shuttered schools and cut power in high-poverty communities, where children rely on schools for free breakfast and lunch, school districts used food trucks and delivery vans to distribute free meals to children.

When Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas with torrential rains, 1 in 4 students in the state were affected by the storm. A list of shelters taking in Harvey refugees published in a Houston news outlet includes scores of schools along with churches and community centers.

While an owner of a furniture store made national headlines for taking in flood victims, educators and other school staff across the state received few accolades as they helped to convert schools to shelters and deliver meals and blankets and other aids.

Schools used Facebook and Twitter to help family members track one another down, tell people when shelters were full, and stay in touch with children and parents at their homes once the storm had passed but schools had yet to reopen.

Victims of the most recent storm, Hurricane Maria, that devastated all of Puerto Rico, are still digging out of the damage and struggling to find access to safe drinking water and food. For many of the sufferers and their communities, schools have been a lifeline. Many schools defied the widespread destruction to stay open and serve as refuges for storm victims and community centers distributing water and meals.

Using the strength of their union, the 40,000-member Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican, educators have distributed supplies, organized storm centers, even provided money, in amounts of up to $500 each to help teachers dealing with the impact of the storm.

Mainland schools and educators are playing key roles in the storm relief effort as well, taking in hundreds of Puerto Rican school children able to flee the island. Nearly 700 students displaced by the storm have enrolled in the Orlando-Orange County school district alone.

In California, where the adversary isn’t wind and rain but devastating fire, schools and educators have rushed to reopen campuses to resume teaching and learning after the blazes displaced thousands of families and shut down 600 schools in three counties.

Educators, some of whom lost their homes, are returning to their workplaces with the urgency to “bring a sense of security and normalcy” to traumatized children. Schools are carefully following clean air protocols to ensure safe environments for their students and bringing in additional counselors and psychologists to help returning students with the mental anguish of evacuating their homes and returning to the blackened landscape.

Based on how schools and educators have come up big for their communities hit by such cataclysmic events, it would seem that Betsy DeVos would praise the “system” she leads and urge the presidential administration she serves to bolster support for teachers and schools.

Instead, while news stories showed how our schools and educators performed heroically in the face of catastrophe, DeVos urged parents to choose education options other than their public schools and insulted anyone daring to defend our public education system. That truly is “Sad!”

Betsy DeVos’s Attack On Public Education Is Just Beginning

With less than a year in office, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is already having the narrative of her impact on the nation’s public schools recast from someone with the power to “single-handedly decimate our public education system” to someone who is capable of only incremental change or who is completely ineffectual altogether.

Don’t believe this shift in the storyline.

First consider how many times media reports trumpeting efforts by the President Trump administration to act more responsibly have quickly changed, within days or even hours, to news reports of the continued fecklessness of the White House. Similarly, news stories about Trump being completely ineffectual at accomplishing his agenda are constantly counterbalanced with stories of his continued success at radically altering the nation.

Likewise, we can judge any attempts to recast DeVos into a more diminished role as short-term and mistaken interpretations of events.

For instance, one popular stab at remaking the DeVos image is to credit her with achieving an “evolution” in thinking about her influence at the helm of the education department.


Education policy observers, from Beltway think tanks to prominent news outlets, have used DeVos’s recent speech at Harvard University as evidence of some newfound “restraint” in her approach to radically alter the nation’s education landscape from one dominated by public institutions to a “market place” of privately owned providers getting public funds to compete against neighborhood schools.

Writing at his blog at Education Week, conservative education pundit Rick Hess cites passages from DeVos’s Harvard speech to claim she had transitioned from someone intent on using her leadership role to push through an agenda for “school choice” – the term most often used to describe expansion of privately operated education providers – to someone who will “tread carefully” in using her powers.

Similarly, Lauren Camera, the education reporter for U.S. New & World Reports, cites the same speech to credit DeVos with “a natural recalibration of expectations that can occur when one steps into a position and better understands the political realities that can constrain agendas.”

In addition to these “she ain’t so bad” portrayals of DeVos, there has been a rash of reports on the apparent inability of her agenda to gain support in Congress. The House rejected the proposals of DeVos and Trump for more federal spending to boost school choice, and the Senate also rejected the Trump administration’s funding for more school choice ventures.

Reports like these have lulled education policy poohbahs into believing DeVos and her agenda have been effectively neutered by Congressional opposition.

In fact, a recent survey of education policy elites – current and former government officials and bureaucrats and Beltway apparatchiks – finds these “Insiders are skeptical that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will effectively advance any policies during her tenure at the Department of Education.”

Over 50 percent of survey respondents believe DeVos will have no success in expanding charter schools, private school vouchers, tax credits (to expand vouchers), public school choice, or virtual schools.

These conclusions about the supposed ineffectiveness of DeVos should be treated with a great deal of skepticism.

First, as seasoned education reporter at Education Week Alyson Klein explains, “from her perch at the department, [DeVos] has other levers to get states and districts to offer kids more schooling options, without help from anyone in Congress.”

With the more than $1 billion in federal grants at her disposal every year, DeVoa can incentivize school choice programs. Klein writes, “Federal officials can give applicants a leg-up if they pitch something choice related, or maybe even if they are a charter school, or part of a district that’s home to a voucher program.”

Further, Klein says, DeVos can use her media leverage – due to her being the most controversial of Trump’s Cabinet officials – to ” give speeches on the virtues of choice, and travel to schools and districts where she thinks choice is making a positive difference.”

And DeVos can use an obscure provision in the new federal education law, called the weighted student-funding pilot, to “allow districts to combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students.” Klein explains, “Adopting a weighted student-funding formula could make it easier for districts to operate school choice programs, since money would be tied to individual students and could therefore follow them to charter or virtual public schools.”

Any speculation that DeVos is somehow backing off her intent to impose school choice on communities or softening her approach to privatizing schools is further cast into doubt by her Department’s recently published “priorities” document that makes clear what her tenure will continue to focus on at the expense of all other possible goals.

The document lists 11 priorities for use in federal discretionary grant programs under her rule. Priority No. 1 deals with school choice. The document specifically proposes giving priority to projects that seek to increase the proportion of students with access to “educational choice.”

In the document, the word “choice” and its variations – “choose” and “option” – occurs 22 times.

On the other hand, “equity,” something many would want at the top of the list, is not a priority at all. Its mention occurs twice, once in a footnote and the other parenthetically. The issue of school funding is also mostly ignored, mentioned only three times. When the subject does occur, it is de-prioritized. “Increased Federal funding cannot be a stand-in for increased learning,” the document declares. “We will focus less on discrete funding streams and more on innovative problem solving.”

There is no mention of the need to work toward racial integration of schools or rectify the harms of segregation.

Clearly, those trying to recast the narrative of DeVos from the potent force originally described in the media into the weakened warrior currently in fashion are seeing the trees and not the forest.

As my colleague at The Progressive Jennifer Berkshire writes, DeVos’s strategy to transform American schools from universal access to a competitive marketplace is a “long game” approach in which every momentary defeat will result in her dedication to the cause to grow even more fervent.=

“[DeVos] gives every indication of being quite pleased with the progress she’s making,” Berkshire contends. “’Hasten slowly,’ is how DeVos described her family’s motto in a recent interview. DeVos’ own family, and the one she married into, have sought to impose their vision of a country free of unions and dependence on government, including ‘government schools,’ for two generations. Now, after decades of slow hastening, they’re almost there.”

New Federal Grant Feeds Charter School Gravy Train In New Mexico

When the U.S. Department of Education recently announced its list of recipients of over a quarter billion dollars in federally funded grants to charter schools, charter management organizations, and charter development agencies, charter skeptics cast a suspicious eye at some of the grantees, and for good reason.

Previous targets for federal charter grants have resembled a “black hole” for taxpayer money with little tracking and accountability for how funds have been spent spent. In the past 26 years, the federal government has sent over $4 billion to charters, with the money often going to “ghost schools” that never opened or quickly failed.

In 2015, charter skeptics denounced the stunning selection of Ohio for a $71 million federal chart grant, despite the state’s charter school program being one of the most reviled and ridiculed in the nation.

This year’s list of state recipients raises eyebrows as well.

One of the larger grants is going to Indiana, whose charter schools generally underperform the public schools in the state. Nearly half of the Hoosier state’s charters receive poor or failing grades, and the state recently closed one of its online charter schools after six straight years of failure.

Another state recipient, Mississippi, won a federal grant that was curiously timed to coincide with the state’s decision, pending the governor’s approval, to take over the Jackson school district and likely hand control of the schools to a charter management group.

Another state recipient that deserves scrutiny but may get overlooked is New Mexico, with an award of over $22.5 million for the New Mexico Charter School Program. The award seems questionable based on the academic performance of charter schools in the state and the lack of transparency and accountability of its charter sector.

First, some important context about K-12 education in the Land of Enchantment: Nearly 30 percent of New Mexico’s children live in poverty, and the education achievement gap between whites and minorities is one of the worst in the nation.

U.S. News & World Reports notes, New Mexico places 48th in the magazine’s ranking of Best States for education, and the state’s high school graduation rate of 71 percent in 2016 was significantly lower than the national average of 82 percent. Education Week’s well-respected “Quality Counts” annual report card on state school performance ranked New Mexico 49th in the nation in its’ 2017 report, down from 32nd in 2011.

New Mexico lawmakers have responded to these challenges by cutting the resources schools need.

According to a state-based child advocacy group, per-pupil spending in the state is 7 percent lower in 2017 than it was in 2008. New Mexico is also “one of 19 states” that cut general aid for schools in 2017, with spending falling 1.7 percent. “Only seven states made deeper cuts than New Mexico.”

New Mexico’s school funding situation has grown so dire, bond rating agency Moody’s Investors Service recently reduced the credit outlook for two-thirds of the school districts in the state, and parent and advocacy groups have sued the state for failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide education opportunities to all students.

To fill a deficit gap in the state’s most recent budget, Republican Governor Susana Martinez tapped $46 million in local school district reserves while rejecting any proposed tax increases.

Given the state’s grim education funding situation, it would seem foolhardy to ramp up a parallel system of charter schools that further stretches education dollars, but New Mexico has doubled-down on the charter money drain by tilting spending advantages to the sector.

A study conducted by a state legislative committee last year found that charter schools in the state receive 15 percent more funding per student than regular public schools, because of state loopholes that work in the charters’ favor. Another loophole has ensured that charter schools have received 46 percent of public-school funding increases over the past seven years even though they serve only 7 percent of the student population. The findings prompted at least one Democratic state lawmaker to call for a moratorium on new charters.

The funding advantages charter schools have in New Mexico have not resulted in better academic outcomes, according to the study, with district schools outperforming the charter schools in a number of key categories, despite their higher percentages of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners.

The state’s three virtual charter schools, which all have ties to private, for-profit corporations, also have funding advantages over regular public schools – including access to transportation and capital outlay funds, even though they don’t have building and facilities costs, and students log in from their homes. Students attending the state’s online charter connected to education multinational Pearson Education fare worse than students across the state on standardized tests. The school fell from a C to an F in the state’s most recent A-F grading system.

Despite the problems charter schools pose to the state, poorly performing charters are rarely closed, and high performing charters do not share best practices with district schools, according to the committee report referenced above.

Even charter industry organizations warn that New Mexico’s oversight of charter school academic performance is inadequate. Citing a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the Albuquerque Journal describes the state’s means for holding schools accountable for academic performance as “minimally developed.”

As evidence of the “the loosely defined ‘standard’ for renewal in the state,” the news outlet notes, the state’s education commission recently renewed six charters, “though none met their charter goals or received an A or B state grade.”

In addition to the fiscal and academic problems charters pose to the state, recent findings from a state auditor’s report reveal glaring problems with financial accountability.

By auditor Tim Keller’s reckoning, the New Mexico Public Education Department has no account of what happened to $20 million allotted for charter school administrative costs over a five-year period.

Keller’s review claims “a widespread inadequacy of tracking” throughout the charter school financial system has left gaping holes that are potentially exploitable or mismanaged by charter operators.

Keller’s warning is warranted based on numerous anecdotes.

In 2015, a commission of the state’s education department shut down a charter in the Saint Theresa schools district, accusing the founder of the school of “improper spending, fraudulent enrollment numbers, incomplete record keeping, and numerous conflicts of interests.”

More recently, another investigation by auditor Keller found that about half a million dollars were diverted from an Albuquerque elementary charter school into a former employee’s personal bank account during a six-year period. Altogether over $700,000 is unaccounted for, and several charter school employees may be indicted.

The school had been subject to financial audits by an “independent auditor” for years, according to the Albuquerque Journal. But Keller’s office was tipped off to the alleged embezzlement when a vendor reported a “suspicious tax form” to the auditor’s hotline.

The haphazard way this case came to light indicates that the incidents of fraud and mismanagement in New Mexico charter schools are likely the tip of an iceberg of charter school financial malfeasance in the state.

The rash of problems that plague New Mexico charter schools should ring alarm bells among staff members at the U.S. Department of Education, but instead federal officials decided to reward the behavior with its $22 million grant.

“How much of the $22 million headed to our state for charters will actually help the students?” asks Charles Goodmacher, the Government and Media Relations Director of the state’s education association in an email. “Especially in light of our insufficiently funded education budget, when teachers see hundreds of thousands of dollars disappear, we are disheartened.”

Indeed, we all should be.

60 Years After Little Rock, Its Legacy Lives On In Jackson, Mississippi

This week’s 60th anniversary of the “Little Rock Nine,” named for the African American students who braved violent backlash and racist insults from whites to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, is prompting a wave of articles on the struggle for racial justice in American public education.

But while news outlets recall valiant efforts to integrate schools in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – and then frame those efforts as mostly futile given the resurgence of segregation today – black communities, and now brown ones too, still have little control of their education destinies for very specific reasons.

Attempts to call out these reasons are all too rare.

“Decades after ‘Little Rock Nine,’ school segregation lingers,” reports the Associated Press, as if segregation is some sort of residue from a toxic spill or a pungent odor left long after taking out the trash.

The events from Little Rock are presented to us in the abstract as “images” and “symbols” from the past, and we’re told the lessons to be learned from the events are about “how hard and difficult desegregation has been” and how “the debates remain complex, progress uneven, [and] answers elusive,” writes The Guardian.

But the story of Little Rock should not be confined to past tense, and its lesson is really pretty clear and simple.

As I reported about Little Rock a year ago, the fight for racial justice in its schools has never ended.

The rationale to keep black students in the schools “where they belong” evolved into a rhetoric about the need to “reform” the district’s schools along lines conceived by white politicians and the state’s economic power base of private foundations and wealthy businesses.

instead of using Jim Crow and white flight, or housing and highways, the new segregationists have other tools at their disposal.

I quoted local experts and government officials who explain how funding cuts to the district enacted by state lawmakers undermined the schools and left them strapped of necessary resources. The schools’ beleaguered conditions led to a state takeover of the district and the introduction of an aggressive charter school sector to compete with local public schools for resources and students.

I cited local observers and reporters who identify the powerful Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization connected to the family that owns the Walmart retail chain, as the controlling force governing Little Rock schools, rather than the citizens of Little Rock.

The truth of Little Rock repeats itself over and over in communities throughout the South and across the country.

More recently, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, researching a story about the current effort of the state to take over the local school district there, much in the same way Little Rock schools were taken over. Jackson is similar to Little Rock in that it is a school district populated predominantly by non-white students.

For two days, the Mississippi Department of Education staged a series of meetings that illustrated once again how white elites continue to define education opportunities for black and brown communities.

The racial symbolism of the events was inescapable.

MDE officials, who were predominantly white, presented their case in a room limited in seating and closed to the public over an hour prior to the meeting’s announced start time. Members of the State Accreditation Commission and the State Board of Education, who were predominantly white, decided the fate of Jackson schools in separate closed-door sessions completely sequestered from public view.

Some 100 local citizens, who were predominantly black, were relegated to an auditorium, where they watched events unfold on a live stream video that was often interrupted and garbled during transmission, and then they waited for hours to have decisions announced to them.

Local school officials, who had had a mere seven school days to muster a defense, presented detailed documentation of their recent and ongoing efforts to correct problems in the district, but the thick binders they presented were generally left unread on the meeting room tables as commission and board members convened in closed chambers to cast their votes.

Should the governor agree that Jackson schools are in a state of “extreme emergency,” as the state contends, the district’s school board is dissolved, the superintendent is dismissed, and an appointed conservator, reporting directly to the state Board of Education, is put in place to oversee the schools. In fact, the conservator has already been chosen.

The day the State Accreditation Committee decided to recommend takeover – a necessary step before proceeding to the Board of Education’s hearing the next day – Jackson’s recently elected progressive mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told those gathered on the sidewalk outside of MDE headquarters that they had just witnessed a “perfunctory exercise” in which “every commissioner who stepped into that room had already reached a decision.”

He declared “the burden of proof” in the state’s case “was not met.” And he called for ‘turn[ing] the page in Mississippi” and departing from the state’s history of denying black communities control of their schools. “We will not stand silently as they rob our children of an education.”

“This takes away the rights of the community,” local attorney and Jackson Public School parent Dorsey Carson said after the State Board of Education had made its recommendations for state takeover. “JPS parents were locked out of the process,” he told a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk after the board’s announcement. “Parents and children do not have a voice.”

It’s telling that while national news outlets issued their Little Rock retrospectives, none devoted even minimal reporting to the story happening in Jackson now.

Communities like Little Rock and Jackson show us that the rhetoric justifying white control of education for communities of color may have changed over the last 60 years, from calls for cultural purity and patriotism in the past to proclamations today about the need for “innovation” and “options.” But the results are the same: Black and brown communities still aren’t in control of where and how their children go to school because white people in charge of the system refuse to let them have it.


Betsy DeVos’s Back To School Message At Odds With What Parents Want

While the vast majority of American parents are addressing Back to School season by buying supplies, readying their children, and joining with other families in preparing for a hopefully successful new year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is traveling cross-country in a bus to spread a very different message completely at odds with the hope, anticipation, and resolve parents and their communities feel about public education.

Just how far at odds DeVos’s views about public education are with the average American parent’s views became apparent in a new survey released during her bus tour.

DeVos, who says she fully supports “great public schools,” christened her bus tour with the theme “Rethinking Schools,” which somewhat assumes there’s something wrong with public schools to begin with. Her stated purpose for the tour is to promote “innovation” in our education system, which seems fine itself.

But in the first stop of the tour in Wyoming, DeVos’s strongest comments were aimed at the the negative message  she’s been spreading about public schools ever since she was nominated.

As education journalist Valerie Strauss reports on her at the Washington Post, DeVos’s remarks to an audience of  public school school children were anything but an upbeat message. Instead of raising their hopes for the year, she said “most students” are starting the new year at schools that are “a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.”

She contrasted an idealized version of the pioneering spirit that settled the West to the “education system” she rejects – “There’s no such thing,” she said – despite the historic role of public schools in settling the West.

In Colorado, DeVos visited a private school known for specializing in educating children with autism. As a state based media outlet reports, DeVos’s tour chose the school because of its “role in the landmark Supreme Court case” that led to raising the standard schools must meet to educate students with disabilities.

“During her comments,” the reporter writes, “DeVos did criticize ‘artificial barriers schools create to meet the needs of students.’ She did not identify those barriers.”

A barrier DeVos could have identified is the fact that the federal government has never lived up to its legal obligation to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While Congress authorized the federal government to pay 40 percent of each state’s obligations to educate children with disabilities, current levels of federal spending are less than half that. And the budget President Trump and DeVos have proposed in no way addresses for this chronic shortfall.

Then in Nebraska, DeVos chose to visit more private schools – one supported by a local wealthy foundation, and the other a Catholic school – which seems to suggest her notion of rethinking schools is to reconceive them as private schools.

While DeVos’s bus tour paints a bleak and failing portrait of our nation’s public schools, a new survey reveals that parents’ attitudes toward public education are very different

As Education Week reports, the national poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates, finds, “Most parents like their public school and want to support teachers, whom they trust more than anyone else to make choices for education.” The survey was conducted for the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers’ union.

Contrasting to DeVos’s message about public schools as being “a mundane malaise,” 73 percent of parents responding to the poll “said their public school was ‘excellent or good,’ 20 percent said it was ‘adequate,’ and just 7 percent said their public school was ‘not so good or poor.'”

In contrast to DeVos’s promoting more expansions of private schools and charter schools, the poll found, “Over 70 percent of parents said they would prefer a good quality neighborhood public school for their children over the ability to have more choice of what schools they can send their children to.”

In contrast to DeVos’s proposals to keep our schools inadequately funded, “most parents” responding to the survey “disapprove of reducing spending on traditional public schools and using the funds to increase spending on charter schools.”

Given the results of the survey, there’s little surprise members of Congress are not exactly rallying around the DeVos agenda for public education. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill are generally rejecting most of her budget cuts and her plans to send more public funding to private schools. Yet, at the same time, Congress seems to have no plans to enact the stronger support for neighborhood public schools parents prefer.

What’s not at all clear is where we go now from this place where we have a presidential administration horribly out of step with the people, a population which seems fairly unified on its priorities, and a Congress in a “mundane malaise” about  the conflicted agenda.

Betsy DeVos’s Silence On DACA Says Everything About Her Support Of Education Opportunity

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proclaims her agenda is to “focus everything about education on individual students,” but if she really cared about the welfare of students she would speak out about what her boss President Trump is doing to hundreds of thousands of undocumented students whose fate he has cast to the wind by ordering an end to the Obama-era program shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Trump’s decision to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, also has an immediate impact on thousands of teachers whose DACA deferral made it possible for them to enroll in teacher preparation programs, earn certification, and gain employment in schools. For students with undocumented parents, cancelling DACA throws them into a state of fear that while they’re in school their mother or father could be deported. Many DACA beneficiaries, often called “Dreamers,” have become parents and now face the prospect of being ripped away from their children and families. Further, Trump’s action to crack down on DACA recipients has a chilling effect on all immigrant students – full citizens and otherwise – who fear they, or a friend or family member of theirs, are next to be targeted by the heavy rule of the Trump administration.

Yet, as of this writing, neither DeVos or her Department of Education have issued a statement addressing the plight of these students. Indeed, the last time DeVos spoke about DACA, she said, “Undocumented immigrants shouldn’t worry about the Trump administration’s support for educational opportunities.”

Of course, the impact of Trump’s decision to end DACA goes way beyond students and public schools. The number of undocumented immigrants eligible for DACA far exceeds the 800,000 currently enrolled in the program and is likely over 2 million, according to data cited by an article in USA Today. And ending DACA is a big hit to the nation’s economy, taking away a huge chunk of skilled workers, reducing tax revenues by hundreds of billions, and costing government more billions in the costs of deportations.

But DACA “is inextricably tied to education,” experts at the Migration Policy Institute explain, “as applicants must have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent or be enrolled in school.”

MPI’s analysis finds tens of thousands of DACA eligible students around the country are still in the school pipeline for the program. Of the nearly 1.2 million children and youth who were eligible for DACA in 2014, 365,000 were in middle and high school and 241,000 were in college. Over 250,000 school-age children have become DACA-eligible since President Obama began the program in 2012. And numerous news outlets cite an analysis by the National Immigration Law Center estimating that 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from high school each year.

As many as 20,000 Dreamers work as teachers, reports Univision.

“It’s impossible to know the exact number of teachers with DACA because the federal government does not track that information,” the Univision reporter explains, but he cites estimates for 2016 of 5,000 in California, 2,000 each in New York and Texas, and “sizable populations” in at least seven other states.

“These teachers bring extra value to immigrant communities because they know the community’s stressors,” the article quotes an NEA official. “They contribute with their culture, their language, their personal experience. Students and families trust these teachers.”

A national coalition of education leaders has urged Trump to protect DACA-protected students, the Washington Post reports, saying that ending DACA would create uncertainty for their students, ratchet up stress in schools, and discourage students from enrolling in schools and colleges and showing up for classes.

“It seems that this administration is trying to go above and beyond to target, intimidate, and create fear among our immigrant families and communities of color,” writes National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia on her personal blog. “As educators and NEA members, defending DACA is personal. This is about our students and our colleagues.”

Teachers unions are taking the lead in defending their colleagues and their students.

Shortly after Trump’s announcement, which came through Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the American Federation of Teachers issued a statement pledging its support for cities and school districts – including New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere – that have become “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants.

AFT vowed to provide “know your rights” advice to schools on how to handle an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid and lesson plans to address the health and emotional needs of students affected by canceling DACA. AFT also urges governments at all levels “to reaffirm that children cannot be barred from enrolling in public schools based on their immigration status or their parents’.”

NEA is also providing educators resources and tools for supporting Dreamers, including guidance on legal status and employment and steps for dealing with acts of racism and hate.

So where’s DeVos?

DeVos has said all along that her emphasis would be on the interests of students and parents. She has long maintained that giving them more choice will ensure more education opportunities and better education outcomes. Now she is part of a regime taking away one of the most precious opportunities students and parents have – the opportunity to live, go to school, and have a future in the country they grew up in. And there’s little sign she cares about that kind of education opportunity at all.

Like Her Boss, Betsy DeVos Makes A Disaster All About Herself

While President Trump’s boastful comments about crowd size at his tour of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Houston struck some as egotistical and self-aggrandizing, his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a similar performance in Florida, where she robotically recited her favorite talking points against a backdrop of a slow-motion catastrophe striking the state’s public schools.

Like her boss avoided interacting with people who bore the brunt of the hurricane, DeVos avoided public schools, going to a privately-operated charter school and a voucher-receiving private school instead.

What’s hitting Florida’s public schools may not directly endanger lives as Hurricane Harvey did, but it will surely exact a heavy toll on the Sunshine State’s education infrastructure.

Yet DeVos calls the state “a role model for the nation,” which foretells a troubling future for public schools everywhere.

‘A Profit Boom For Charter Schools’

With the approval of its super-majority Republican legislature and its gargoyle-like conservative governor, Florida is forever altering the state’s education landscape.

Under a Frankenstein monster-like new law, school districts will be required, for the first time, to send a portion of local tax revenues to charter schools, in addition to state revenues charters are already entitled to. The law gives charter schools the flexibility to open multiple schools a year. It funds a new initiative, called Schools of Hope, that transfers the lowest-performing public schools to charter school management companies. It limits districts’ use of Title 1 federal government funds in ways that could provide more money for charter schools. And the law limits the number of restrictions a school district can place on a charter.

The provision requiring school districts to share local tax revenues with charters is particularly devastating to public schools.

As a result, Miami-Dade Schools may see a quarter of a billion dollars of its funds transferred to charters, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tells a reporter for the Miami Herald. “This will force the school district to delay, cancel, or reduce the scope of existing construction projects and impact the district’s ability to pay for school maintenance.”

The costs to neighboring Broward County schools may be $100 million. Sarasota schools may lose $9.3 million to charters.

As a result of the Schools of Hope measure in the law, “more than 100 traditional public schools given low grades by the state will be converted into charters — even though the charter sector in Florida is deeply troubled,” writes education journalist Valerie Strauss on her blog at the Washington Post, “more than 300 have closed as a result of poor performance.”

“Charter schools often fail at a higher rate than traditional schools in Florida,” states an op-ed by an education reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. “This bill takes a method of education that is failing at rates much higher than traditional ones – and puts it on steroids.” (emphasis original)

“It’s going to be a profit boom for charter schools, and it’s going to hasten the demise of traditional public schools,” State Senator Gary Farmer tells a reporter for the Sun Sentinel.

Total ‘Voucherization’

On top of the harm done to Florida public schools by its new charter expansion law, state lawmakers this year also significantly increased the amount of public money going to private schools through school voucher programs.

One private school DeVos visited in Florida is a Catholic school, where “crosses are prominently hung in classrooms and the school honor code directs students to let God’s love guide them,” according to a local reporter. The school charges more than $11,000 per year in tuition.

Another private school DeVos visited receives public funding through the state’s voucher program. The total amount isn’t clear. But Florida’s statewide voucher program, called a tax credit scholarship, cost state taxpayers over $600 million in the first ten years of its operation, from 2002 – 2012, according to Fund Education Now, a state-based public school advocacy. Eighty percent of the parents who use the vouchers send their children to religious schools.

The vouchers are not limited to the poorest families. A family of four can earn as much as $48,600 and qualify for a full scholarship, and $63,180 for a partial scholarship.

Only 25 percent of students using these vouchers transfer out of the state’s lowest performing schools, rated D or F by the state, and only 10 percent of those students end up performing better on standardized tests, gaining over twenty percentile points. Fourteen percent lose more than twenty percentile points. Students who leave their private schools to return to public schools tend to perform less well than their peers who never participated in the program.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who many regard to be a collaborator with DeVos on education policy, recently called for “total voucherization” of public schools at an appearance with other prominent Republican politicians.

Bush called vouchers a necessary “innovation” because “the system we have today is still designed as though it was in the 1930’s.”

Bush’s words are near copies of what DeVos said in Florida in calling public schools “stuck in a mode” from “100 years ago” and proclaiming the state an “innovator.”

Florida Is No ‘Role Model’

Florida already ranks among the worst states for school funding –  41st according to one authoritative analysis – when all factors are taken into account.

The most recent annual analysis of school funding fairness conducted by the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education gives Florida a grade “F” on funding effort, noting the state has one of the worst ratios of local and state spending on education compared to the state’s economic productivity. That analysis also ranks Florida 41st out of the 50 states in its level of funding.

In writing about the Hurricane Harvey disaster for the New York Times, education journalist Dana Goldstein ponders whether Houston public schools will experience the same level of transformation after Harvey that education reformers brought to New Orleans schools after Katrina.

Katrina “remade education policy” in New Orleans, Goldstein writes, ushering in the state takeover of the district, “the dismissal of thousands of teachers, and an expansion of the charter school sector.”

If Betsy DeVos has anything to do with how Houston schools recover from Harvey, we’re likely to see more proposals to turn its city schools into privately operated charters and voucher funded private schools.

In the case of Florida, however, DeVos doesn’t need a natural disaster to get what she wants. A manmade one will do just fine.

[An earlier version of this article misreported which private school DeVos visited receives vouchers.]



What Happened To All The Teachers?

A recent headline from CNN that declares “schools throughout the country are grappling with teacher shortages” may seem like a rerun to anyone who’s been paying attention to news about public schools over recent years.

“A perennial issue,” an article in Education Week calls it, and points out most states have had chronic teacher shortages “for years, if not decades,” particularly in staffing positions in special education, math, science, and foreign-language instruction.

But this year’s reports of teacher shortages seem different. Indeed, mounting evidence should convince anyone who cares that providing students a guaranteed access to highly qualified teachers, no matter where they live – an ideal that’s never been a well-kept promise to begin with – is weakening even further.

CNN reporter Caitlin Ostroff cites evidence of teacher shortages in school districts as diverse as rural Maryland and New York City, but the evidence is even more widespread.

State officials in Colorado are estimating a shortfall of 3,000 teachers statewide this school year.

In Detroit, a shortage of teachers means classrooms are overcrowded and students won’t have music, art, and gym. Looming teacher shortages in New Orleans are forcing the city to think of new and creative ways to hire more than 900 teachers annually, until 2020.

Rural school districts have it particularly tough.

In a Minnesota small town school district that has struggled with teacher shortages for years, the superintendent tells a local reporter about advertising an opening for a fifth-grade teaching position and getting “zero applicants. None.”

A recent news story on teacher shortages in rural Texas schools finds, “Some districts without any takers for open jobs have resorted to livestreaming instruction from other schools or having educators teach more than one grade.”

To make up for the teacher drought, government officials in many places are resorting to drastic measures that can’t be good for the quality of instruction in our schools.

Indiana schools are using substitutes as a solution for its five-year dearth of first-year teachers entering the system. In Oklahoma, school districts experiencing years of teacher shortages are resorting to “novice” hires with little to no K-12 teaching experience. An investigation by an Arizona news outlet finds that chronic teacher shortages in that state have led to districts hiring unqualified, inexperienced staff – as many as 22 percent of teachers may now lack qualifications. An Arizona school district cited in the above Education Week article is filling in the gaps with parents, much like they’d call for chaperones for a field trip. Utah’s State Board of Education has responded to growing teacher shortages by letting schools hire teachers with zero teaching experience and no training.

Causes for these widespread shortages vary. Education Week reporter Madeline Will links Oklahoma’s teacher shortfall to the fact the state has “the lowest average teacher pay in the country.”

Teacher pay is a serious problem for sure. Ostroff quotes from a study that finds, “Salaries for U.S. secondary school teachers have largely remained the same over the past two decades.” Stagnant wages are particularly detrimental to recruiting math and science teachers because potential employees with these skills can often find higher paying work.

Retaining current teachers is a problem too. Another study Ostroff references notes, “eight percent of teachers leave teaching each year, with two-thirds quitting before retirement.”

That study, published last year by the Learning Policy Institute, provides the most robust analysis to date of what’s causing teacher shortages in many places. Among the factors analyzed include teacher working conditions, compensation, turnover, preparation and certification, and the attractiveness of the positions that are available.

Digging deeper into the data, the LPI study raises the even more alarming concern that enrollments in teacher education programs in the nation’s institutions of higher learning have dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, which means the prospects of a readily available supply of newly trained teachers may not be in the offing.

More recent data find an uptick in the national supply of teachers, compared to student enrollment growth, but chronic, and seemingly worsening, problems with teacher shortages on record, both anecdotally and in the analysis provided by LPI, shouldn’t be ignored or minimized.

However, instead of digging deeper into the many causes and solutions for teacher shortages, the advisors who tend to have the ear of policy makers in Washington, DC and state capitals these days tend to call news of widespread teacher shortages a “myth.” Their thinking is invariably guided by the belief that problems of unfilled teacher positions are just a matter of aligning supply and demand – much like an accountant would view a business problem – so their advice is always to goose some area of the teacher pipeline with more incentives – usually better pay.

Giving people more money can sometimes have a positive effect on getting them to do what you want, but this thinking starts to break down in the education world.

First, teachers as a labor force aren’t inordinately responsive to financial incentives – that’s partially the reason they’ve chosen to take a very challenging job that is notoriously underpaid. Further, there’s some evidence that offering financial incentives to teachers results in little to gains in student learning. So what are we really aiming for?

What’s not at all helpful is to have loud-mouthed politicians continue to disparage teachers for being “overpaid” and “stupid.”

From a parent’s point of view, when you’re told that because of a teacher shortage, your child won’t get instruction in music and art or may have to put up with a math teacher who knows little about the subject, or about effective instructional practices, it matters little to you what someone’s spreadsheet analysis of the data says.

What it says to you is that there is something incredibly wrong with how our education system is treating teachers. And that’s not just an economic problem; it’s a cultural one.

What To Make Of The Democrats’ Growing Divide On Education

At the same time Donald Trump’s vile presidency is unifying Democratic resistance to his policies on civil rights, healthcare, and immigration, his views on education policy, and those of his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, are dividing Democrats.

Evidence of this growing divide is rapidly accumulating, and Democrats in denial of it are only going to make the party’s already marginalized status worse.

Division Is Everywhere

At last week’s Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressives, where so many popular movements have vaulted into prominence, protestors stormed the stage to shout down a Democratic candidate who openly embraces positions DeVos promotes, including privately operated charter schools and school vouchers that allow parents to enroll their children in private schools at taxpayer expense.

In New York, Politico reports, Shavar Jeffries, a prominent black supporter of charter schools and leader of Democrats for Education Reform, recently resigned from the board of Success Academy, a New York City charter school chain whose CEO Eva Moskowitz, also a Democrat, has been openly supportive of DeVos and was one of Trump’s early picks for education secretary. The “collision course” the reporter sees for Jeffries and Moskowitz is going to repeat among any Democrats who diverge on DeVos and her policies.

A dust-up over racist comments made recently by hedge fund investor Daniel Loeb, who also sits on the board of Success Academy, is getting swept into the education space. Loeb, who has donated heavily to numerous political candidates, including Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been a fervent supporter of charter schools. But his advocacy pushed him toward extremism then he likened Democratic State Senator Andrea Stewart-Couisns, who is black, to the KKK.

Stewart-Cousins, who recently opposed legislation to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and calls for more accountability from these schools, is now being derided as an “anti-charter Democrat” by charter advocates and deserving of such criticism. Prominent African-American Democrats in the state, on the other hand, have rallied to her support.

“Charter schools … are going to create new divisions for Democrats in primaries for 2018,” writes Graham Vyse for The New Republic. Vyse cites examples from a Politico report showing efforts to link Trump and DeVos to Democratic candidates who support charters and vouchers.

“This rift within the party over education policy is very real,” Vyse argues, “and has been hiding in plain sight for years. It just took DeVos to bring it out into the open.”

Look At The Data

Evidence of this growing divide is not merely anecdotal.

An annual survey published by the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University revealed plummeting popular opinion for charter schools, which many Democrats favor. As EdSource reports, favorability for charter school expansions fell from 51 percent to just 39 percent, a 12-point decline in one year.

Although support for charters fell among both Democrats and Republicans, the decline among Democrats now means opponents of charters in the party outnumber supporters, 40 percent to 34 percent.

The growing opposition to charters in the Democratic party may be due to the “polarizing impact” of Trump, notes EdSource. The survey found more Republicans agree with him and more Democrats disagree with him on key education issues. “When half of the respondents were told the president’s positions, between 7 and 14 percent more Democrats disagreed with Trump, depending on the issue, while roughly the same percentage of additional Republicans aligned their views with his.”

What Democrats Should Do

In the face of such shifting opinion on education policy, how should Democrats respond?

First, calls to take “partisanship” out of education policy debates should be cast aside. Democrats who say they can’t agree with this President’s politics need to feel uncomfortable when they find themselves advocating for education policies that are very much in line with what Trump and DeVos want.

The bipartisan consensus on education policy that reigned during the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama was always really a collusion of big-moneyed interests and well-meaning, but ill-informed politicians, to wrestle control of a $600 billion sector of the economy away from teachers, parents, and democratic governance.

Strip away the civil rights language that liberals used to sell charter schools and vouchers to America, and you end up with policies that look exactly like what Trump supports: unregulated, “free market” mayhem that opens vulnerable communities to exploitation by powerful interests.

Telling public school advocates in the Democratic party to turn the heat down is also be a big mistake.

As my colleague Robert Borosage writes, movements are now driving the Democratic party debate and not politicians. Social media rather than party manifestos are propelling change, whether we like it or not.

In such a contentious space, “Democrats need a major debate about values and policy,” Borosage argues, not more “hand-wringing” about the need to unify.

Trump’s tanking popularity proves he can be defeated even if Democrats aren’t in agreement on what they want.

Further, the debate Democrats need should take place in the public forum rather in the revolving door between previous presidential administrations and a handful of think tanks, non-profits, and philanthropic organizations.

For years, Democrats have been getting bad advice from that crowd, and the party needs guidance from elsewhere.

Democrats should have faith that out of this tumultuous debate a new consensus will emerge, but that consensus will be an improvement over the top-down one it’s replacing only if it truly comes from the bottom up.

Betsy DeVos’s ‘School Choice’ Looks More Like Crony Capitalism

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she supports “great public schools,” but her actions continue to show her hypocrisy on that subject.

Her recent trip to Michigan, her home state, offers yet more proof of the real focus of her leadership – and it isn’t about supporting public schools.

During her visit to a Michigan community college, reporters questioned DeVos on her support for public school teacher training and professional development programs. The school, Grand Rapids Community College, offers an extensive array of education courses to prepare new teachers or help veteran faculty grow their instructional skills. Reporters couldn’t help but point out that President Trump’s budget has proposed massive cuts to teacher training programs, including eliminating $2.4 billion in funding for Title II, the third-largest federal K-12 program in the country.

Nevertheless, DeVos told reporters, “President Trump and I are very big proponents of continuing to support teachers and develop teachers.”

DeVos also pivoted reporters’ questions to talking about her support for the Van Andel Education Institute, which she had visited earlier in the day. The Van Andel Education Institute also provides career development programs for teachers, more specifically on preparing and supporting educators in teaching science, technology, engineering, and math, commonly called STEM education.

Trump’s budget, which DeVos has repeatedly endorsed, proposes huge cuts that would endanger STEM learning in public schools and the training provided by public institutions to support teachers in delivering STEM curricula.

Yet, again, DeVos professed her support for “those kinds of opportunities,” even though the budget she and the president have proposed cuts funding in those areas.

But here’s a crucial point local reporters didn’t point out: While the community college DeVos visited is a public institution funded primarily by public tax dollars, the Van Andel Institute is a private, nonprofit organization funded principally by friends of Betsy DeVos.

Jay and Betty Van Andel founded the Van Andel Institute after amassing a huge sum of money in creating the Amway corporation with Richard DeVos, the father-in-law of Betsy. “Amway went on to become one of the largest privately held companies in the world, making both of its founders billionaires,” writes a progressive blogger based in Michigan.

So the fact Betsy DeVos would tout the Van Andel Institute at the same time she presides over a federal department that is advocating for deep cuts to teacher training and STEM education should bring up serious questions about her professed allegiance to public education.

While private organizations like the Van Andel Institute have been prospering, Michigan has made huge cuts to public institutions like community colleges. In 2011, Michigan lawmakers passed a budget that cut public institutions most responsible for teacher preparation and career education, community colleges and universities, by 15 percent. Funding levels have never recovered since.

During roughly the same time, enrollments at Michigan community declined 18 percent while the Van Andel Education Institute grew.

DeVos’s preference for private institutions in higher education mirrors her proposals for K-12 schools. The budget she and her boss have proposed essentially cuts direct aid to students, especially those from low-income families, in order to expand the private sector’s financial footprint in education by funding expansions of charter schools and school voucher efforts.

This clear favoritism for the private sector prompted American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to call DeVos “the most ideological anti-public education person to ever be nominated or confirmed to that position.”

Weingarten notes the budget she and Trump promote is “the worst per-capita budget cuts for kids who are vulnerable or poor that we’ve since Reagan. DeVos also wants the worst budget cuts in raw numbers ever.”

At nearly every turn, DeVos favors private and powerful entities over the public and the least empowered in our society, Weingarten notes, “fighting for the predatory lenders rather than the borrowers in terms of student loan debt,” siding against marginalized students such as transgender children and victims of college campus sexual assaults, and weakening enforcement of federal government anti-discrimination laws in private schools that receive vouchers. These are all signs of a U.S. secretary of education who just does not get that the federal government’s role in education is about ensuring equitable access to education institutions that guarantee an opportunity to learn.

DeVos claims that her proposals are intended to provide more “choice” in the education system, but if that were true, she would be proposing to raise funding levels for all options. The fact she boosts education options in the private sector at the expense of public options shows her real intention is to tilt the playing field toward the choices she wants – privately owned institutions.

The fact those private options sometimes have personal connections to her family and its fortunes make it look all the more like this isn’t about education at all. It’s about making money.