Education Opportunity Network

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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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Wrong: Public Schools Aren’t The Cause Of Science Ignorance

It’s true that a lot of Americans don’t have a very good grasp of science. Only about half of Americans believe that human beings evolved over time, fewer parents are vaccinating their children, and while most people accept that climate change is happening, they don’t think it will affect their lives.

But are public schools to blame for this?

That’s what astrophysicist and “Cosmos” star Neil deGrasse Tyson seemed to say when he recently tweeted, “The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.”

Tyson also told an interviewer for the Huffington Post, “I blame the education system that can graduate someone into adulthood who cannot tell the difference between what is and is not true about this world.”

Tyson was likely reacting to news stories about the dramatic growth in the flat Earth movement. Yes, there really are people who believe the Earth is flat. Among them, in fact, is NBA star Kyrie Irving who says, “The Earth is flat,” and any evidence of its alleged roundness “is a lie.”

Anti-science views may indeed be in resurgence. President Donald Trump is slashing the budgets of science-related agencies and appointing officials with well-known anti-science biases.

But the hallmark of any good scientist, which Tyson certainly is, is to create a hypothesis and then weigh the evidence. So what’s the evidence that public schools are the main cause of science ignorance?

School Bashing, A Time-Honored Tradition

First, bashing public schools for America’s perceived disadvantages in science education is practically a time-honored tradition.

In 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite, the Eisenhower-era political establishment, fearing the nation was losing the “space race,” pointed a blaming finger at American schools.

Driven by paranoia that Communists were spying on us, “the nation responded to the security threat by targeting education” as the reason why the nation was falling behind, noted a Harvard review on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.

“The schools never recovered from Sputnik,” the late Gerald Bracy wrote in 2007. “Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion.”

The scab would reopen again during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

In the early 1980s, Bracey recalled in a 2003 article, the danger was not “the Red Menace” but the competitive threat posed to the nation’s economy by German, Japanese, and Korean manufacturing.

A new report commissioned by the Reagan administration, called “A Nation at Risk,” blamed public schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity” that was allegedly crippling the nation’s ability to compete with the new industrial titans of the world. Using that report, Reagan helped launch a campaign for “greater accountability” from public schools that would stretch into the current century.

Battling False News

Today, when public schools and science teachers aren’t contending with the continued bashing by lawmakers and policy leaders, they have to address an around-the-clock onslaught of propaganda and “false news” which their still highly-impressionable students encounter every day.

As NPR reports, “Kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they’ve read online or heard elsewhere,” and teachers have more false information they have to dispel.

Conservative think tanks know this, the NPR reporter notes, and are carpet bombing schools with glossy information packets designed to provide teachers with convenient – albeit false – answers to students’ myriad questions about climate change and other scientific subjects.

Media celebrities frequently ply students with erroneous “facts” about the world. Among those celebrities is Kyrie Irving with his flat-Earth theory.

The NPR reporter quotes a science teacher whose middle-schoolers believe the Earth is flat because Irving told them so. “As hard as they try,” the article notes, “science teachers aren’t likely to change a student’s misconceptions just by correcting them.”

Against this background of the near-constant criticism and undermining of science learning that schools have to contend with, in steps Tyson with his charge of educational malfeasance.

His charge hardly seems fair.

The Vanishing Curriculum

First, Irving didn’t get his high school and college education in public schools. He went to private high schools Montclair Kimberley Academy and The Patrick School, both in New Jersey, and spent a year at Duke University, also a private institution. His beliefs about the world certainly aren’t a direct product of public schools.

Similarly, neither President Trump nor his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos got their educations in public schools.

Second, what Tyson and other critics of public schools don’t take into account is the challenging context science teachers have to contend with.

As a report from the National Education Association explains, fiscal austerity and policy decisions have been shrinking school curriculum.

NEA explains, “Critical subjects have been crowded out of schools or even eliminated entirely by the lethal one-two punch of deep budget cuts and the singular focus on improving reading and math,” which are the two subjects currently tested under federal government mandates.

The “obsession” with testing math and reading performance, the NEA contends, “has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science.”

NEA points to a 2011 national survey, which found 27 percent of teachers noticed science was being crowded out of their schools’ curriculum due to the over-emphasis on state tests in math and reading.

Recent calls for more education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) may rescue science from the vanishing curriculum. But there’s a new threat.

As NPR reports, a new state law just passed in Florida “allows parents, and any residents, to challenge the use of textbooks and instructional materials they find objectionable.”

Among the subjects that proponents of the new law intend to address is the teaching of “Darwinism” in public school science textbooks.

“Under the law, school districts will still have the final say,” NPR reports. “Even so, some worry the law will have a chilling effect” on what public schools are able to teach without fear of controversy and objections from local critics.

South Dakota is considering a similar bill.

Aim Higher

This is not to say there aren’t problems with science teaching in public schools.

A recent study finds that over two-thirds new teachers who want to teach science are routed into teaching other subjects.

Further, not all science teachers accept scientific conclusions about the world. For instance, there are estimates that nearly one in eight high school biology teachers believe Earth and the human species did not evolve over time.

But this does not necessarily mean these teachers are brainwashing students with creationist beliefs. Good teachers demonstrate all the time that they can present objective information about a subject while not letting that subject matter challenge their own belief systems.

Finally, if Tyson believes science ignorance is more-so a problem of system design rather than the people in it, then fair enough. But he should be aware that, historically, criticism of public schools is turned into negative attitudes against the people in them.

If Tyson wants to blame science ignorance on someone, he should aim higher.

Problems Posed By School Choice Can’t Be Ignored

Enraged school choice advocates stormed the Internet over the past few days to defend their cause from criticism no matter how reasonable.

What sparked the anger of remarkably thin-skinned proponents of charter schools and school voucher programs were criticisms that school choice without proper governance has, and can still, increase racial segregation and undermine the public schools that low-income communities of color rely on to educate their children.

The objects of their wrath, specifically, were a speech given by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on school vouchers and a report issued by the national NAACP on charter schools.

In her speech, Weingarten had the temerity to point out, “Decades ago, the term ‘choice’ was used to cloak overt racism by segregationist politicians.”

That assertion has a basis in fact. A recent report from the Center for American Progress documents how, more than 60 years ago, county officials in a rural Virginia county who objected to court-mandated desegregation, following the landmark Brown v. Board of decision, chose to close its segregated public schools and issue all the white kids vouchers to attend private schools instead.

The report explains, “By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,”and vouchers were implemented as a means of diverting public funds to those private schools, allowing white communities to evade desegregation requirements.

Today’s voucher programs vary considerably in intent but often produce segregation, if not by race, then by income or other means.

CAP points to Indiana’s voucher program that “increasingly benefits white, suburban, middle-class families more than the low-income students in underperforming schools whom the program was originally intended to serve.”

Indiana is not the only example. Many studies have found that voucher programs lead to more segregation because those parents who tend to use them are more educated and have a higher socioeconomic status than those who do not.

The voucher program in Arizona, an education tax credit program, designates only about 3 percent of voucher money to special-needs students, and barely a third goes to children of low-income families.

In Nevada, most applicants for vouchers are not from low-income areas in the state. North Carolina’s voucher program sends money to private schools that blatantly exclude students on the basis of religion and sexual identity.

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a huge fan of vouchers, was asked during a recent budget hearing before Congress whether a voucher program funded by federal dollars should send money to private schools that can discriminate on the basis of race or disability, she refused to answer the question.

Clearly the record, both past and present, bear out Weingarten’s claim that “private schools can–and many do–discriminate, because they don’t follow federal civil rights laws. Vouchers increase racial and economic segregation. And they lack the accountability that public schools have.”

The report from the NAACP that unhinged school choice proponents was equally grounded in facts.

The subject of the NAACP’s examination was charter schools, another favorite of school choice fans, and the increasingly harmful effects they are having in African American communities

A year ago, the NAACP drew national attention when it passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters until these schools “are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.”

After the storm of criticism coming from school zealots, the NAACP created a task force on charter schools whose mission was later expanded to include recommendations on “actions needed to improve the quality of education for all children of color being educated with public funds and to ensure the sustainability of an effective public education system for all children.”

As my colleague professor Julian Vasquez Heilig reports, the NAACP’s new report acknowledges that public school systems that serve low-income communities of color are indeed struggling to deliver high quality education, but the problems stem more so from unfair funding, not lack of choice. And unregulated choice in the form of charter schools exacerbates problems with inequity.

The evidence base for the NAACP’s conclusions is drawn from “more than 50 hours of public testimony in seven cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and New York,” writes former public school principal Carol Burris in a blogpost at the Washington Post. “Members heard testimony from both charter proponents and opponents. Community leaders, policy experts, parents and students spoke.”

“While high quality, accountable, and accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity,” the report authors write, “by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

To create a more stable, sustainable school system, the NAACP recommends equitable and adequate funding for schools, especially for low-performing schools. And the role of charter schools in the system needs to be better regulated, specifically by mandating a more rigorous authorizing process, controlled solely by the local districts where charters reside, and ending the role that for-profit charters and for-profit charter management companies play in the system.

Until charter schools can adhere to these recommendations, the NAACP stands by its call for a moratorium.

It’s important to note neither in Weingarten’s remarks nor in the NAACP report are there any calls to eliminate more parent choice in school systems, or to close down existing charter schools or end the creation of new charters in perpetuity.

Public school advocates readily admit the systems they advocate for are often flawed, criticism from the well-intentioned is necessary, and intervention is often required to right what’s not working well for families and communities.

Is it asking too much of school choice advocates to do the same?

How Budget Austerity Puts Public School Parents On Par With Criminals

In researching an upcoming article I’m writing about the St. Louis school system, and the district’s ongoing funding crisis, I came across an astonishing example of who wins and who loses in current approaches to government budget balancing.

As a local St. Louis reporter tells it, during a public meeting about a proposed new $130 million 34-story apartment building in the city, alderman Joe Roddy used a slideshow to make a case for why the city should give the developers 15 years of reduced property taxes, a $10 million subsidy, in exchange for some additional retail space and 305 high-end, luxury apartments downtown.

In a slide show titled “How the City Makes & Spends Money,” Roddy, a Democrat mind you, laid out a hierarchy of those who “make money” for the city at the top and those who cause the city to “spend money” at the bottom. At the top of his slide were businesses. In the middle were residents with no children and retirees. And at the very bottom – in the tier of city dwellers who place the biggest financial burden on government – were “criminals and residents with children in public school.”

When told that some might take offense at equating families with children needing free public schools to criminals, Roddy countered that the project would “target tenants who are young professionals without children. Attracting that demographic to the city is crucial, he says, and after the tax abatement ends, the revenue windfall for the city will be significant.”

By the way, St. Louis has a history of extending tax abatements for developers to longer terms.

But the thrust of Roddy’s remarks is well understood by all – in a budget environment of forced scarcity, there are increasingly strong demarcations between winners and losers, and parents who plan on sending children to free public schools are increasingly losers.

To be fair to Roddy, a great deal of St. Louis’s financial constraints, particularly in relation to the city’s ability to cover the cost of education, is the fault of the state of Missouri.

A 2015 accounting of state school funding found Missouri is “underfunding its K-12 schools by $656 million statewide, nearly 20 percent below the required level.” The budget situation for families with children has not improved a lot since then, with this year’s installment cutting spending on school buses, higher education, and social services.

Missouri is one of 27 states that spends less on education than it did in 2008.

The severity of Missouri’s budget austerity seems specifically targeted at districts like St. Louis that happen to be stuck with lots of low-income families with children (Where would they fall in Roddy’s hierarchy?).

A 2016 study conducted by NPR found that St. Louis schools on average spend considerably less per student compared to the highest spending districts in the St. Louis area.

Another more recent analysis by EdBuild finds St. Louis schools have a cost adjusted revenue per student that is nine percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state even though the district is challenged to educate a student population in which 68 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measurement of poverty.

The trend of financial inequity for St. Louis schools is worsening, according to Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, who finds that the district, since 1995, is increasingly at a funding disadvantage compared to the rest of the state.

It’s not hard to see how this is going to play out for parents.

To pay for the costs of crime, under-funded local governments are “increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system,” according to a report by NPR in 2014.

One community where court fines and fees “skyrocketed” to levels that made them a major revenue generator for local government is next door to St. Louis – Ferguson, Missouri, where, you recall, 18 year-old Michel Brown was gunned down by local police nearly three years ago.

As it is for the accused in the criminal justice system, parents in local schools are having to bear more of the burden of education costs.

According to an annual report, known as the Backpack Index, that calculates the average cost of school supplies and school fees, parents will have to pick up more of the tab if they want their children to participate fully in school.

The annual cost to parents is significant at a time when the majority of school children come from households in poverty: $662 for elementary school children, $1,001 for middle school children, and $1,489 for high school students.

A detail highlighted by NBC’s report on the Backpack Index notes that the biggest spike in direct costs to parents comes from fees charged for activities like school fieldtrips, art and music programs, and athletics. These fees far exceed costs for items like backpacks, pens, and graphing calculators.

Families with children in elementary schools can expect over $30 on average in school fees. For children in middle school, the average cost of fees climbs to $195 for athletics $75 for field trips, and $42 for other school fees. In high school, the fees spike much higher to $375 for athletic (often called “pay to play fees”), $285 for musical instrumentals, $80 to participate in band, and $60 in other school fees. Also in high school, the fees extend to academic courses including participating in Advanced Placement classes, which more schools emphasize students participate in. The average fee for testing related to these courses is $92 and the costs of materials to prepare for these tests, as well as SAT tests, tops $52.

In 2011, I spotlighted the practice of charging parents direct fees for school programs in five states – Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – and connected the rationale for the fees to austerity budgets.

I noted that schools have an obligation to work with all of the varying interests and abilities of students by offering sports, clubs, after-school activities, service learning, and other programs. But states that continually under-fund education pressure schools to shift the burden of these programs from a shared cost of the community onto only those families who need the services.

The problem is getting worse.

In North Carolina, the recently passed state budget again leaves schools woefully short of what they need, and now state administrators are scrambling to pass down the millions in education cuts.

“On the chopping block,” reports left-leaning watchdog NC Policy Watch, “include offices that provide services and support for local school districts, including intervention efforts in low-performing regions.”

In what appears to be an effort to twist the knife deeper, “the state budget also bars school board members from making up the lost cash with transfers from various GOP-backed education initiatives, including the controversial Innovation School District—which provides for charter takeovers of low-performing schools—and other programs such as Teach for America, Read to Achieve, and positions in the superintendent’s office.”

In the meantime, NC’s budget has winners too, as all budget documents do: “Lawmakers continued to set aside millions for a massive expansion of a private school voucher program. The state is expected to spend $45 million on the program this year, with the plan to expand the annual allocation to $145 million in the next decade.”

Now you tell me, who is the criminal here?

Why Teachers Don’t Trust Betsy DeVos, And Neither Should You

The nation’s largest organization representing classroom teachers, the three million-member National Education Association, is getting plenty of guff over its decision to stonewall U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The NEA’s latest rejection note to the secretary came from the organization’s charismatic and blunt-spoken president Lily Eskelsen Garcia who, in an interview with Education Week, said about DeVos, “There is no reason to trust this woman.”

Garcia’s remarks closely follow a keynote address she gave at the NEA’s annual gathering of delegates in which she proclaimed, “I will not allow the National Education Association to be used by Donald Trump or by Betsy DeVos … I do not trust their motives … There will be no photo op.”

The minute DeVos became the nomination, the NEA joined the broad, bipartisan coalition opposing her. And since DeVos took office, the teacher’s group has declared, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”

The NEA’s staunch opposition to DeVos, and Garcia’s blunt statement of non-cooperation, have stirred the ire of those accustomed to the club-like chumminess of the education policy establishment in the nation’s capital. “Refusing to talk to somebody is something I expect more of middle schoolers than of the leadership of organizations,” Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute told the education reporter for New Republic.

That article, and others, have noted that public school supporters, including the NEA and the other national teachers’ association, the American Federation of Teachers, have differed on how to relate to DeVos.

But does Garcia’s contention that DeVos is simply not to be trusted have any validity?

Objective sources have no trouble arguing that President Donald Trump is not to be trusted. It’s become commonplace to express strong doubts about almost anything Trump says, including about the gravest of matters. Even the former director of the FBI couldn’t trust the man.

So if it’s reasonable to argue that the nation’s president is not to be trusted, why is it somehow untoward to say the same of a secretary serving under his regime?

There are, in fact, numerous concerns that cast doubt on DeVos’s trustworthiness.

Dark Money Past

First, it’s almost impossible to separate DeVos and her service in the education department from her past in dark money politics.

Jane Mayer notes, in her book Dark Money, that when Betsy Prince, the education secretary’s maiden name, married into the DeVos family, it brought together two of Michigan’s most politically powerful families.

“Betsy DeVos, who eventually became the chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party, was said to be every bit as politically ambitious as her husband, if not more so,” Mayer notes, a reference to Dick DeVos who, along with Betsy, was a major donor on the Koch Brother “list” of “philanthropists bent on using billions of dollars from their private foundations to alter the direction of American politics.”

Mayer highlights remarks DeVos made in a now infamous op-ed for The Hill in which she wrote, “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy … We expect a return on our investment.”

It’s hard to believe anyone uttering such a strongly expressed intent to reap the rewards of political donations would suddenly have a change of heart once in office.

Indeed, news of DeVos and her family donating to Republicans associated with the Trump administration  continues to leak out.

As Politico reports, DeVos and her extended family contributed “at least $22,500 to one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees for the judge’s campaign for a state Supreme Court seat” in Michigan. The donations occurred before DeVos was nominated, but the gifts show the tight circle of money and influence DeVos inhabits with the Trump administration.

More recently, in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District which pitted Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Osoff in the most expensive House race in U.S. history, members of the DeVos family donated at least $27,000 to Handel, according to The Hill.

Evasiveness in Answering Questions

DeVos, in fact, continues to evidence all the symptoms of being someone who is less than straight forward in her dealings with others.

DeVos has “mastered the art of the non-answer,” education journalist Valerie Strauss writes on her blog at the Washington Post.

“Sometimes, for example, she offers a response that deliberately doesn’t answer the precise question,” Strauss writes. More frequently, she diverts the subject of the question to “her favorite education topic, giving parents choices other than their neighborhood traditional public school.”

At other times, DeVos simply seems to have no grasp of what the subject of the question was about, as she most famously exhibited in her confirmation hearing when she couldn’t answer questions about federally guaranteed rights of special education students in schools and about whether standardized testing should be used to assess student growth or subject area proficiency.

A Penchant for Secrecy

When DeVos isn’t having difficulty answering straightforward questions, she is operating in what appears to be a cone of silence.

Rights organizations have accused DeVos and the department she heads of giving Congress “the silent treatment” on how the rights of transgender students will be upheld, since the Trump administration rescinded federal guidance that was provided by the Obama administration.

Advocates for religious minorities have noticed DeVos has been shockingly silent on whether she will press for a federal voucher plan that would send federal money to private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of religion.

News organizations covering higher education have reported on recent lapses in public comment coming from DeVos about the department’s decision to delay and renegotiate Obama-era regulations of for-profit colleges.

Last month, Democratic senators concerned with recent actions taken by DeVos’s department regarding civil rights investigations and a decision to de-emphasize individual complaints of discrimination sent DeVos a letter calling attention to their concerns. To date, the senators have received no reply.

A significant reason the NEA expressed its lack of trust in DeVos is due to her non-response to questions the organization posed to her when she took office.

“If DeVos doesn’t answer the union by September 1,” reports Education Week, “it will call for her resignation, according to the motion, passed at the union’s annual convention here.

Fittingly, when the EdWeek reporter asked for Education Department’s comment on the NEA’s resolution, “DeVos’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond.”

A Cloak of Cronyism

While DeVos gives the silent treatment to news organizations, public officials, rights advocates, and educators, she maintains an open-door policy for those prone to agree with her.

DeVos has angered Democratic officials over her willingness to meet in private with Republican lawmakers who support her agenda for charter schools and vouchers.

Recently, her calendar included a closed-door meeting with the Pacific Research Institute that promotes school choice and has a history of getting financial support from the Koch Brothers to turn back air pollution regulations.

In her travels around the country, she still makes time to meet with influential Republican party donors.

Her reputation for cronyism isn’t at all helped by brother Erik Prince, who operates a mercenary business and has his own secret meetings with the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and White House operative Steven Bannon.

DeVos, in the meantime, invested between $100,000 and $250,000 in a defense contracting firm owned by her son-in-law that could potentially benefit from Prince’s back door negotiations.

Among her and her husband’s other investments is a $5 million – $25 million stake in a company that markets a bogus method of training people’s brains to cure them of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss, and migraines.

Nothing to be concerned with here … move along.

So there are good reasons why educators such as Lilly Eskelsen Garcia and her NEA brothers and sisters shouldn’t trust Betsy Devos. And you shouldn’t either.