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New Reports Reveal The Big Charter School ‘Accountability’ Lie

In one of the testier moments in what was the testiest ever confirmation hearing for US secretary of education, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia questioned if nominee billionaire Betsy DeVos would demand the same kind of accountability from the full range of education institutions she wants included in her program for unleashed “school choice” – public schools, charters, and private schools receiving taxpayer money through vouchers.

The exchange went like this:

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter, or private?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Kaine: “Equal accountability?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

That DeVos responded to a legitimate – even essential – question with a stubborn, insipid talking point is illustrative of not only her inability to provide an intelligent, straightforward answer to most questions about education policy, but also indicative of the empty rhetoric the well-financed charter school industry uses to respond to any appropriate questioning of the rationale for expanding these schools.

There’s ample evidence – based on both DeVos’ personal efforts to unleash unregulated charter schools in her own state, Michigan, and on evidence from other states that have similar unregulated charter school environments – that much of the vaunted “accountability” of charter schools is an empty promise at best, and at worse, a curtain to hide all sorts of malfeasance and corruption.

Sunshine State Scandal

As a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy documents, “lack of oversight” and regulatory guidelines have led to a massive expansion of low-performing charter schools in Florida.

While Michigan is often called the “Wild West of charter schools,” Florida is the “Wild South.”

In 2015, I traveled around South Florida to report about how a plan for charter school expansion hatched by former governor Jeb Bush had spread financial opportunism and corruption while doing little to improve the academic performance of students. In a subsequent report, I revealed that the rise of charters as big, unregulated businesses brought with it new and special forms of ripping off the taxpayers under the guise of a “civil rights cause.”

CPD’s new report reveals the situation with charter schools in the Sunshine State has only gotten worse.

While Florida’s K-12 charter enrollment increased 172 percent over the last ten years, millions of taxpayer dollars poured into charters that quickly closed. “Many of those charters that do remain open fail to perform well,” the report states.

“Florida lawmakers have allowed charters to be scaled rapidly despite the large quality control problem that exists in the Florida charter industry,” says report author Kyle Serrette in an email to me. “Whenever new charters are approved, those decision makers believe they are getting a new ‘A’ rated school – yet in fact, 21 percent of the time they are getting a ‘D’ or below charter school. The flood of poor performing charters will only get worse until we get to the bottom of why this is happening.”

The report calls for a moratorium on new charter school expansions in the state until there is an accountability system with transparent data on the schools, a better way to identify struggling schools, and a regulatory structure of “local school advisory councils” to provide more oversight.

Serrette tells me, “Florida lawmakers have the responsibility to ensure charter schools are providing students with the education they deserve and holding themselves to the standards we would expect of any school.”

As our new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos would likely be more apt to support and spread the kind of taxpayer waste and abuse we see in Florida rather than address it. That, at least, is what we can assume based on her actions in Michigan.

The Myth of ‘Robust’ Charter Accountability

Charter school advocates insist DeVos has been a force for charter school accountability in the Mitten State. They point to her recent work to lobby for changes in recent bipartisan legislation governing Detroit schools as evidence.

That law sought to create a locally-based commission in the district to oversee the opening and closing of schools, including charters. However, DeVos and the political machine she amply funds in the state worked behind the scenes to have that legislation changed to eliminate the commission and include, instead, a “report card” for grading schools A–F, a mandate to close persistently low-performing charters, and an end to the practice of letting failing schools dodge accountability by switching to different authorizers. These changes are being branded as a robust stand for real accountability.

But as Michigan-based freelance journalist Allie Gross reveals, what DeVos and her allies pushed through will increase the likelihood that charter schools will evade accountability measures in the state.

In her report for The Atlantic, Gross takes a deep dive into the legislation DeVos backed and finds it is riddled with loopholes and caveats that allow low-performing charters to evade accountability.

First, the new legislation DeVos backed does nothing to address that, in Michigan, “anyone can start a [charter] school, and that there are very few boundaries when it comes to who could authorize a charter.”

Second, the new ruling DeVos and her allies pushed through does not give state or local authorities the power to close persistently low-performing charters. It pushes the authorizer to “amend its contract with the school” and gives authorizers various loopholes to exempt the school from closure. Shifting the responsibility of closing low-performing charters largely to authorizers will likely give low-performing charters more ways to evade accountability because, as Gross notes, “authorizers have a monetary incentive to keep schools open, as they get a percentage of a school’s state aid.”

Finally, the law DeVos backed legislation makes authorizers’ decisions “final” and “not subject to review by court or any other state agency,” so bad authorizers that fail to take corrective action on low-performing charters are protected from negative legal consequences.

Don’t Believe the ‘Accountability’ Claim

As education secretary, DeVos will have considerable influence on how the new federal law governing education is implemented, Gross explains.

That law allows states to design their own accountability policies, but those policies are subject to approval of the US Department of Education. Understanding how the Michigan law DeVos supported provides regulatory loopholes for charters “illuminate[s] how she could approach the issue from the bully pulpit,” Gross concludes.

Based on how charter schools operate in states like Florida – Arizona, Ohio, and Pennsylvania also come to mind – and on how Betsy DeVos provided regulatory loopholes for charters in Michigan, there is no reason to believe her claim to support accountability and no reason to believe the charter industry will use her tenure to advance accountability measures.

 

Does Betsy DeVos Care About Racial Equity? We Still Don’t Know.

So Betsy DeVos doesn’t know much about education policy. Didn’t we already know that?

Nevertheless, the hot takes coming after her rocky confirmation hearing for the US Secretary of Education nominee read as if people are genuinely surprised that someone who has never been a teacher, never run a school, never served as a public official overseeing education, and never been engaged in scholarly work on education is not terribly well versed in education policy.

When peppered with questions about complicated policy issues like assessment methodology and federal enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, “DeVos’s inexperience in the realm of public education appeared at times to be a liability,” observes Emma Brown for the Washington Post.

Libby Nelson at Vox finds DeVos’ reaction to “questions about the basics of federal education policy suggested she knows little about what the department she hopes to lead actually does.”

Valerie Strauss, the education blogger for the Post, writes, “DeVos either displayed a lack of knowledge about education fundamentals or refused to answer questions that Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee believe are critical to her fitness for the job”

The senators’ questions were indeed about important matters and should have been asked, and certainly the queries from the Democratic side of the committee were more worthy than the softball questions and vapid compliments from the Republican side. (Memo to Republican senators: Saying someone really, really “cares about kids” doesn’t qualify her for office.)

But there were bigger, more philosophical education issues DeVos could have likely been more able to expound on had she ever been asked. One of those big-picture issues that was glaringly absent from the senators’ questioning was race.

Race has historically played a much larger role in federal education policy than disputes over standardized testing, “accountability,” charter schools, Common Core, and what else tends to occupy education debates these days. It’s also an issue where DeVos has a very controversial track record.

What largely defines the federal government’s role in education, at least at the K-12 level, is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which grew out the federal government’s War on Poverty and was a response to Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court case that called for racially integrated schools – and the Civil Rights Movement. The law has had different names over the years, but its focus on equal access and opportunity for students started with black children before expanding to other student populations.

So what are DeVos’ views on racial equity in education? Does she support racial integration? What would she do to assert the federal government’s historic role in ensuring racial equity in schools?

Unfortunately, much of what DeVos has worked for in her state of Michigan – the “schools of choice program,” vouchers, and the proliferation of charters – is taking the state’s schools back to a segregationist past.

As a recent analysis by Bridge Magazine finds, “Tens of thousands of parents across Michigan are using the state’s schools of choice program to move students out of their resident districts and into ones that are more segregated.”

The analysis includes Holland, Michigan, DeVos’ home town, where “white enrollment has plummeted 60 percent, with 2,100 fewer white students. Today, whites comprise 49 percent of school-age children living in the district, but only 38 percent the school population.”

The level of white flight is similar across the state. “In the 2009-10 school year, roughly 64 percent of choice students across the state moved to a less diverse district. That rate is now approaching 70 percent.”

Bridge Magazine’s analysis finds especially stark results from school choice in East Detroit, where white students have fled the district to Lakeview schools, a predominantly white district that has better test scores, more funding, and better facilities. The article quotes charter school advocates who say the white flight has less to do with race than with “better quality schools.” But the history of America teaches that a racially separate school system will never produce equal outcomes for kids.

This resegregation of the state has negative academic results. Bridge points to studies that show disadvantaged black and brown students benefit academically and socially from a more integrated education environment and that integration can help white students too.

Michigan’s performance on the national benchmark exam, the National Assessment of Education Progress, is on trajectory to land the state at near bottom, 48th, in the nation.

The racial segregation produced by school choice in Michigan is similar to what these programs have created across the country.

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Simon Montlake notes, “What both charter schools and vouchers have in common, say critics, is that they perpetuate the racial segregation of US schools, even as the nation’s school-age population grows ever more diverse. While minority parents are being given more choices about where to enroll their children, these choices rarely extend to schools that are more integrated by race or ethnicity.”

Staunch defenders of DeVos like to cite her philanthropic work and advocacy for school choice as efforts to empower black and brown families to obtain better education options.

At her confirmation hearing, DeVos called out two in the audience Denisha Meriweather, an African-American student from Florida, and Nydia Salazar, a Latina student from Arizona, who were “rescued from failing schools” by voucher programs in their states.

As Michigan State University professor Mitchell Robinson explains on a Michigan based blogsite, the two women DeVos pointed to are commonly featured props in her propaganda campaign. Meriwether, he notes, is a paid employee of a Florida organization that helps administer the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program she used to attend a private religious school at taxpayer expense. Salazar, he explains in a separate post, used a taxpayer funded voucher program in Arizona to subsidize part of the cost of her education at a Catholic school that charged $14,000 per year. The rest had to come from her family’s income – hardly a solution that most low-income people can afford.

Others from black and brown communities that DeVos, and other school choice proponents, claims to care so much about who also showed up for her confirmation were locked out of the hearing room.

Members of the Journey for Justice Alliance – an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 24 cities across the country – mounted a bus trip with over 100 primarily black parents and students traveling over 500 miles from Detroit to DC for the hearing.

In a pre-hearing event, J4J executive director Jitu Brown, a Chicago based community organizer, spoke about the “main issue” in American public education: racial equity.

Brown calls school choice an illusion in black and brown urban communities like his, including Detroit and Philadelphia. “We have plenty of ‘choices,'” he argues, “but they lack quality.”

Over 100 of the J4J participants attempted to enter the hearing room, but according to a tweet from the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy that joined J4J in speaking out, pro-charter “line holders” were already in place to fill the room ahead of the protestors. In a tweet from his organization’s timeline, Brown claims the line holders were paid to stand in line and then switched out of the line to be replaced by children who could enter the hearing room and provide a positive backdrop to the cameras filming DeVos.

The New York Times originally reported this stunt as well, writing that Capitol Police had confirmed supporters of DeVos had paid homeless people to line up to get into the hearing at 6:00 AM. Then at 4:00 PM, an hour before the hearing doors were to open, those in line were replaced by “better-dressed people wearing school-bus-yellow scarves celebrating School Choice Week.” This account was later deleted from the Times report, but  both versions are documented here.

Relegated to the overflow room, Detroit parents and students who are most affected by the policies DeVos favors were silenced by security officers and eventually ejected from the building.

Betsy DeVos likes to say her position on education is really very simple – that when parents don’t think their school is a very “good fit,” they simply move to another one. Here’s something else that’s simple: Operating schools that way tends to lead to racially discriminatory results. It’s a shame no senator at her confirmation hearing brought that up.

 

Will Betsy DeVos Restart The ‘Education Wars’?

Education, which was hardly ever mentioned in the recent presidential election, has suddenly been thrust to the frontline in the increasingly heated conflict over President-Elect Donald Trump’s proposed cabinet appointees. The reason for that turn of events is his choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. Her nomination risks “reigniting the education wars,” according to Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union.

Weingarten stated that warning in an address this week at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and broadcast live on the AFT Facebook page.

The union leader joins a chorus of education leaders and activists, as well as Democratic party government officials on Capitol Hill, in calls to delay the hearing for DeVos until after government ethics officials have finished their review of DeVos’ numerous ties to financial and charitable interests. After these calls for delay, the confirmation hearing was indeed postponed for a week.

But what education wars?

During her address, Weingarten referrs to the passage of new federal education legislation in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that resolved many of the disputes over testing, teacher evaluation, and test-based “accountability” provisions that had been instigated by the previous federal law, No Child Left Behind.

Weingarten calls the consensus over ESSA “hard won” and “positive progress” in the way Republicans and Democrats could work together to govern the nation’s schools. But in Trump’s selection of DeVos, Weingarten sees “the antithesis of public education, ESSA bipartisanship, and what kids need.”

She calls DeVos “the most anti-public education figure ever” to hold the office and says her nomination would make education “a strong issue again” that would divide Republicans and Democrats.

In a phone conversation with Weingarten after her speech, I asked more specifically where she sees signs of a return to a more polarized policy debate over education.

She points to DeVos’ opposition to a bipartisan bill in Michigan, her home state and where she wields considerable influence, that would have returned some oversight of Detroit’s public education system – including regulating the openings and closings of traditional public schools and charter schools – to a mayor-appointed education commission.

Weingarten calls the bill a product of “consensus” among prominent stakeholders in Detroit, “people who really care about Detroit” – including the local chamber of commerce, religious leaders, community groups, parents, and educators. But Weingarten believes this local collaboration was undermined, largely due to DeVos’ influence, by an “ideology” coming from outside the community.

The ideology Weingarten refers to is the strong preference DeVos has for generally unfettered “school choice” that has rapidly expanded in Detroit and across the “Mitten State.” In Weingarten’s mind, DeVos has a strong tendency to enforce her own personal preference for choice and undermine other education ideas that come about from local collaboration.

Local collaboration is one of what Weingarten calls the “four pillars” of success in public education. Using the plural first-person pronoun to represent the collective beliefs of her organization and of public school supporters in general, she tells me, “We are not a competitive environment. We are not a commodity or a marketplace. We are for all kids.”

Seeing outsiders like DeVos, who lives in the suburbs of well-to-do Grand Rapids and spends significant sums of money to influence electoral politics and legislation at the capital in Lansing, undermining what communities like Detroit want for their local schools reminds Weingarten of the heated controversies that have long raged in communities like New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago where public education activists have objected to education governance “being done to us, not with us”. ESSA was supposed to end that, Weingarten believes, and now DeVos will restart that conflict.

Another sign of the oncoming education war Weingarten sees is the resurgence of heated rhetoric vilifying teachers and their unions and branding public schools negatively.

She points to a recent pro-DeVos op-ed in Breitbart News by William Bennett, the Secretary of Education under Ronal Reagan, that criticizes Weingarten personally and rails against teachers unions and “underperforming and dangerous public schools.” (Bennett fails to note Michigan charter schools have an underperformance problem that is equal to the states’ public schools.)

DeVos has called the nation’s public school system a “dead end” and “failings government schools” and said teachers are “overpaid.”

Evidence of the re-emerging education war Weingarten perhaps didn’t see, or at least failed to mention to me, is the clear adversarial sides that are coming together to oppose each other.

For years, education policy has been an arena with blurred political allegiances, with Democrats often opposing teachers and public education advocates and siding with Republicans on issues like using student test scores to evaluate teachers and to close schools while increasing taxpayer money for privately operated charter schools.

In the case of the  DeVos appointment, the partisan divides for or against her are quite strong.

While conservative Republicans, including “moderates” like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, have made public statements in support of DeVos, forces on the left are showing an uncharacteristically unified front in opposition to a proponent of “school choice.”

Massachusetts US Senator Elizabeth Warren is helping to lead the way on the Democratic party side. In a strongly worded letter to DeVos, Warren writes, “Your history of support for policies that would drain valuable taxpayer resources from our public schools and funnel those funds to unaccountable private and for-profit education operators may well disqualify you.”

Another Democratic senator, Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is usually supportive of charter schools and voucher programs that send public education money to private education vendors, has also expressed “serious concerns” with the DeVos nomination and seems likely to oppose her.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats have responded to Trump’s pick for education secretary by forming a new congressional caucus.

In an event that Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan broadcast on his Facebook page, numerous Democratic party congressional representatives from across the country joined with Weingarten, National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and Chicago community activist Jitu Brown to announce the formation of the new caucus and urge senators to vote “no” on DeVos’ confirmation.

Pocan noted how school choice initiatives in his home state, such as vouchers, tended to spread academic failure while siphoning resources from taxpayer supported local schools. At one publically funded voucher school, Pocan recalls, “We had one person running the school who claimed he could read a book by placing his hand on the book. We gave funds to schools that used the money to buy Cadillacs.”

Following Pocan, California Rep. Mark Takano, a former public school teacher who spent 24 years in the classroom, insisted DeVos will enforce a “for-profit model of education that will severely cripple public schools … The results of her work in Michigan serve as a warning to schools across America.”

It was especially startling to see Colorado Rep. Jared Polis joining with his Democratic colleagues in calling out DeVos as an enemy of good public education options. Polis, who promotes charter schools and founded one, once called public school advocate and education historian Diane Ravitch “an evil woman” because of her prominent criticism of “education reform” ideas. In his address, Polis accused DeVos of spreading choice without attention to whether the schools were “high quality” options.

This strong opposition to the DeVos nomination from Democrats indicates that if Weingarten is right, that the education wars are returning, the conflict will be different from the past. This time the lines dividing political parties won’t be blurred, and Democrats will know whose side they should be on.

 

Democrats Who Oppose Betsy DeVos Have Nothing To Lose

In “an unprecedented break” from tradition, Democrats in the US Senate are expected to challenge as many as eight of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, including Betsy DeVos for US Secretary of Education, according to a report by the Washington Post.

The opposition to DeVos, Politico reports, comes from “more than a dozen Democratic senators from all wings of the party” who “will portray DeVos’ views as being outside the education mainstream.”

The non-mainstream “views” Politico cites include her “bankrolling efforts to create state voucher programs” and to expand a “loosely-regulated charter school sector” in Michigan, her home state. The Senators are “also intent on drawing attention to her lack of experience in a traditional public school setting. DeVos has never worked as a public school teacher or superintendent, nor has she sent her own kids to public schools.”

Opposition to DeVos has brought an outcry from conservative and politically centrist fans of “education reform” who claim opposing DeVos is driven “partisanship” and “nasty,” “personalized” rhetoric.

It’s true that the opposition to DeVos is a radical departure from what’s happened in the past.

Contrast the reception she is about to get on Capitol Hill to what happened eight years ago when the Senate confirmed former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education. As Education Week reported then, Duncan “coasted through his confirmation hearing … on a wave of bipartisan support.”

Even well into the Obama administration, when Duncan resigned, his replacement, Acting Secretary and former New York state education commissioner John King, “got a partisan-fireworks-free confirmation hearing from the Senate,” per Education Week.

Keep in mind, both Duncan and King had been controversial figures in their respective school leader roles, with Duncan leading a reform charge that ultimately failed and King horribly bungling the implementation of new state academic standards. Also, both had been strong supporters of of the policies DeVos says she will push for federal policy, including charter schools and “school choice.”

What happened?

Certainly, November’s remarkably polarizing presidential election has scrambled previous alliances and opportunities for political consensus, few as they have been.

But what does this mean for education policy?

DeVos, The Ultimate Insider

Like many of Trump’s other cabinet insiders, DeVos is a figure of great wealth and privilege who in no way represents a “populist” wave sweeping into Washington. In DeVos, Trump has found the ultimate inside power player.

Jennifer Berkshire, my colleague at The Progressive magazine, recounts on her personal blog how Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick have played a “long game” to control the fate of Michigan’s much beleaguered public schools.

Berkshire points to a piece by Michigan-based journalist Allie Gross calling attention to a campaign conceived in the early 1990s to expand charter schools in the state. According to local news accounts Gross uncovered, there were just four major financial backers for the campaign, two of which are directly related to Betsy and Dick DeVos.

Everyone knows that politics is ‘dirty business,'” writes Michigan State University professor and blogger Mitchell Robinson, “but the brand of politics played by the DeVos family in Michigan is a particularly brutal version of the game.”

According to Robinson, the DeVoses have mostly failed at achieving political success the old-fashioned way – by using the electoral process. When their efforts to win a statewide referendum for a school voucher program and elect husband Dick to the governorship both resulted in resounding defeats, the “twin humiliations” motivated the DeVoses to attain their goals “like most political operatives and lobbyists, in the background.”

Among the “background” efforts Robinson points to is a DeVos financed “Skunk Works” campaign, “a secretive, off-the-books work group that had been tasked with developing a system of ‘low cost schools'” that would eventually lead to a school voucher program of some sort.

Robinson also points to the considerable influence Betsy and Dick DeVos had on ensuring the 2016 legislation to turn around the troubled Detroit school system did not include any further regulation of charter schools. He cites evidence backing up his claim the DeVoses were “the major players” in the effort to ensure any bill that passed “carved out special protections for school choice and charter schools, even going so far as to ‘freeze out’ a leading Republican senator and Detroit’s mayor from the deliberations.”

The DeVos Money Machine

The inside influence DeVos and her husband have wielded in Michigan has extended to “the national political stage” as well, according to Education Week, where they “are perhaps best known as big-time donors to Republican candidates and groups.”

EdWeek reporter Andrew Ujifusa notes, “In the 2016 election year, for example, the two gave $2.7 million to Republican candidates … But their campaign-donation record goes back much further. And it includes contributions to several senators who may vote on Betsy DeVos’ confirmation in the Senate education committee and subsequently on the Senate floor.”

Ujifusa unearthed nearly $2.7 million in political donations, over the past 20 years, Betsy DeVos personally gave to 370 individuals and causes.

The DeVos funding machine also extends to the All Children Matter PAC, which finances campaigns related to education and other issues. “Over nine years since it was founded,” Ujifusa reports, “the group gave $1.8 million to 581 candidates and party committees,” some of which got the organization in trouble for skirting campaign finance rules in Ohio in 2008. The state has fined All Children Matter $5.2 million, which the organization has yet to pay.

In the questionnaire  DeVos had to submit to the Senate committee that will meet with her next week, there is an astonishingly long list of political contributions.

The insider status DeVos enjoys is especially in character with the nature of the education reform agenda, which has always been much more reliant on the inner workings of politics and wealthy people rather than the will of the general populace.

Yet, the emergence of opposition to DeVos from Democratic party insiders seems to fly in the face of the bipartisan effort that has driven many of the policies she supports.

What Education Bipartisanship Hath Wrought

As Rachel Cohen writes for the American Prospect, “In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground” for “federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization” DeVos is expected to advocate for.

“In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002,” Cohen writes, Republicans and Democrats enacted the standardized testing and accountability measures that created the narrative of “failing” schools. Obama, with his appointment of Duncan, extended and confirmed the narrative further.

Also throughout the Bush-Obama years, the federal flow of money and favorable policies for charter schools increased significantly. With the appointment of DeVos, the spigot of funding for various forms of privately operated, taxpayer funded schools will likely open wider still.

In Michigan, what the expansion of charter schools has led to, according to a report for the Christian Science Monitor, is an increasingly polarized debate where supporters of charter schools and vouchers insist these policies are what “has put kids before adults” against detractors who point to evidence “that 80 percent of the state’s charters actually perform worse than traditional public schools” and a “lack of oversight and accountability” has led to atrocious levels of financial waste, abuse, fraud, and corruption.

That’s exactly the scenario we’ve been seeing at the federal level as well, where insiders backing reform increasingly claim their cause is “all about the kids,” while outsiders continue to point to evidence that results of the reform agenda often lead to something quite the contrary.

What’s changed,however, is that it’s become evident that In states like Michigan, the insiders’ push for education reform no longer needs to include Democrats.

The End Of Education Bipartisanship?

As EdWeek’s Ujifusa notes, the amount the DeVoses gave to Democrats in 2016 was “nothing” and over the history of Betsy DeVos’ personal giving, only “a very, very small amount went to Democratic candidates or groups.” Of the senators who will preside over DeVos’ confirmation hearing, none of the Democrats have received donations from her, while four of the Republican senators have enjoyed her cash.

The truth is, from a political standpoint, the education reform agenda – at least the way it’s currently conceived as a mélange of funding austerity, standardization, testing, and efforts to direct tax dollars to various private interests – has been bipartisan because it had to be. Without a popular groundswell for charters and other school privatization efforts, Republicans intent on privatizing public education have needed Democratic party insiders to help push legislation and policy through government channels at all levels.

But that’s changing. Now that the federal government resembles much more the makeup of states like Michigan – where conservative Republicans dominate the legislative and executive branches – bipartisanship is a luxury Republicans no longer need to move their ideas for school vouchers and other forms of privatization forward.

For sure, there are Democratic party insiders who believe they’ve been backing the cause of education reform for idealistic reasons. They may choose to go along to get along with the new Republican regime to see where that gets them despite having zero leverage in the policy debate.

But for those Democrats who’ve remained largely silent or on the fence on charter schools, vouchers, and other features of the reform movement, now is indeed a good time to express opposition. They have nothing to lose.

Girding For The Education Fight Ahead

If you want to get an idea of what kind of education policies to expect from a Donald Trump administration, Wall St. has a clue for you.

A report from BuzzFeed explains, online charter schools are “gearing up for a boom during the Trump administration, judging by where investors are placing their bets.”

The article points to K12 Inc., which is the country’s largest operator of online charters, whose stock price has risen in value by more than 50 percent since Election Day – hitting a 2-year high at one point.

The article quotes K12 executives who’ve “told investors the company was one of the ‘best positioned under Trump,” especially due to the “‘personal’ experiences that high-level Trump administration members have with the company.”

Among Trump personnel who’ve had these “experiences” with K12 is his pick for US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

As the article notes, Betsy DeVos’ husband Dick is “an early investor in K12.” Another in the Trump entourage who is close to online charters is his Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. As governor of Indiana, Pence advocated for more “school choice” in the state, including online charters.

Online charter schools operated by K12 have a particularly poor track record for academic achievement, as the BuzzFeed story notes.

A recent article in the Washington Post reports on a study that finds these schools are so bad that students enrolled in them “lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year … In other words, when it comes to math, it’s as if the students did not attend school at all.”

A recent assessment of the academic performance of online charter schools in Indiana found that nearly half of them are doing poorly or failing.

Trump’s “school choice” agenda will also likely include a way to give parents school vouchers they can use to pull their children out of public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense.

Vouchers are another idea that makes a difference on the money side of education but does little to advance the wellbeing of children. Recent studies of voucher programs in Ohio and Louisiana showed they actually harmed students’ academic performance.

And of course we can expect to see more growth of charter schools under Trump. Even if his pledge to accelerate charters with a $20 billion federal block grant doesn’t become reality, there are many strings Trump and DeVos can pull to incentivize states to expand charters or fund these schools directly.

“Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York City Mayor and a key advisor to Trump Rudy Giuliani assures us. And DeVos, who has spent millions to advance charter schools in Michigan and elsewhere, will be Trump’s diligent collaborator on this. Her husband Dick founded a charter school in their state.

A recent analysis by Bruce Baker for the Economic Policy Institute maps out what the consequences of continued charter expansions will be for major metropolitan school districts around the country. Baker finds that as these districts continue to experience losses of enrollments and revenues to charter schools, they inevitably experience budget deficits and degradation of services, while the system as a whole becomes more inequitable for students.

In other words, we’re going to get more school systems that look like Detroit, where, as Michigan-based freelance journalist Allie Gross describes in her vivid account from there, “Choice has come largely at the expense of the traditional public school district … As students joined new charters, public school enrollment and funding fell. Unregulated competition pushed these schools into near-unrecoverable insolvency and allowed dubious for-profit charter operators to prosper without establishing a track record of better outcomes for students.”

Elsewhere in the country, under Trump, many more places are going to look like North Carolina, where I document how states that don’t adequately fund their existing public school systems will continue to add competitive new charter systems, often composed of private institutions that make a profit off tax-payer funded education.

A burning question is, “Where are the Democrats?”

As for the outgoing US Secretary John King, according to Education Week, he’d like all “supporters of public education” to “set aside the policy differences that we have let divide us and move forward together courageously to defend and extend this fundamental American institution.”

While we should appreciate the Secretary’s respect for decorum, what needs to be made clear is who are the real “supporters of education” and what “differences” are appropriate for setting aside and which are worth fighting for.

Education marketers have rebranded “public schools” to mean any institution that gets tax dollars. And the phrase “doing what’s best for kids” has been turned into an empty PR slogan.

The operative political term of the day is “what parents choose for their children,” which has become a de facto argument to justify any kind of education option – even if parents are being suckered into bad choices or are being forced into situations where high quality education options are practically unobtainable. We can expect to hear conservative media outlets use King’s previous proposal to “welcome good public charter schools” to admonish any objections, no matter how reasonably stated, to expanding these schools.

Some Democratic Senators, in their vetting of DeVos, believe they’ve found a “difference” that warrants further scrutiny. As Education Week reports, five of them have issued a letter registering their concerns over a political group DeVos founded which has a $5.3 million overdue bill for a campaign fine it has owed to Ohio for several years. The senators’ concerns are warranted, but unfortunately, they have nothing to do with education.

As Casey Quinlan observes for Think Progress, Democratic advocates for charter schools, like King, are “stuck” in a difficult space between those who are increasingly alarmed with school choice run amok across the nation and “a new administration that’s hostile to public education.”

Exhibit A in Quinlan’s argument is US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who “has been a staunch advocate for the expansion of charter schools and of school choice,” but has now felt pressured to publicly declare he has “healthy skepticism” and “serious early concerns” about DeVos.

Quinlan points to national teachers’ unions as the force driving Democrats into these difficult spaces, but the opposition to the oncoming Trump education doctrinaire goes well beyond the national unions.

Signs of that widespread opposition were evident in states around the country, specifically in Massachusetts, Washington, and Georgia (a decidedly non-union state), where strong, diverse, and grassroots coalitions of voters defeated efforts to expand charters.

One such coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, has called for a National Day of Action on January 19, 2017, to express opposition to “Donald Trump and his billionaire nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, [who] plan to dismantle our public schools by putting them on the market.”

“What our children don’t need is the federal government trying to divert any amount of that funding to private and religious schools,” writes David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center. His recommendations include “start[ing] state-level conversations about rejecting offers of federal funding that come at the price of defunding public education and causing even more inequity and disparity of opportunity for students” and “legislative campaigns for charter school reform.”

The Nation’s Dana Goldstein has good advice too. “If progressive education … is to be effective over the next several years, it will have to focus strategically on statehouses, school boards, city councils, and mayoral races.”

We know what’s at stake. Let’s get to it!

[Editorial Note: EON will be taking next week off and will resume in the New Year.]

What The Hillsdale College Connection Reveals About Donald Trump’s Extremist Education Agenda

Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency left education policy experts at a complete loss to explain what this would mean for the nation’s schools. During his campaign, Trump had given few clues about what would inform his education leadership, only that he had some antipathy for the US Department of Education, that he was no fan of Common Core, and that he would advocate for more “school choice.”

After his election, experienced education journalists at Education Week predicted Trump would embrace conservative Beltway think tanks and state education policy leaders who had bristled under the rule of Obama’s education department, and he would reject the influence of teachers unions, civil rights groups, and politically centrist education “reform” groups.

Many who pointed out “personnel is policy,” speculated Trump would pick an Education Secretary from the ranks of his transition advisers who came mostly from the above mentioned DC-based circles and state government centers. Other knowledgeable sources predicted Trump might draw education policy knowhow from “outsider” sources, such as the military, big business, or the charter school industry.

No one – not a single source I can find – anticipated Trump would look for education expertise in the deep, dark well he repeatedly seems to draw from – the extremist, rightwing evangelical community.

The DeVos Nomination

The first clue that Trump would embed the extremist views of radical Christian orthodoxy in the White House’s education policy apparatus was his nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the nation’s next Secretary of Education.

As Politico reports, DeVos is a “billionaire philanthropist” who “once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to ‘advance God’s Kingdom.'”

Politico reporters point to numerous recordings and interviews in which Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, a billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, promote education policies as avenues to “greater Kingdom gain … lament that public schools have ‘displaced’ the Church as the center of communities, and refer to their efforts to advance private, religious schools as a “‘Shephelah,’ an area where battles – including between David and Goliath – were fought in the Old Testament.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Katherine Stewart, an expert observer of the Christian right, writes, “Betsy DeVos stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right.”

Stewart points to numerous examples of DeVos-related family foundations that have generously donated to “conservative groups” pushing religious right doctrine including, the Alliance Defending Freedom,” the legal juggernaut of the religious right,” and “Colorado-based Christian ministry Focus on the Family.”

But Trump’s selection of DeVos for Education Secretary is not the only clue that the nation’s education policy may be in for a sharp veer to the religious right. As Stewart reports, “The president-elect’s first move on public education [was] Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the nation … Liberty University teaches creationism alongside evolution.”

Falwell Jr. Came First

The Associated Press was first to break the story about Falwell Jr. being offered the job, reporting also that he declined it saying, “He couldn’t afford to work at a Cabinet-level job for longer than [two years] and didn’t want to move his family, especially his 16-year-old daughter.”

“Here is Trump, ready to hand the job [of Secretary of Education] to a religious zealot whose sole goal,” writes Michelangelo Signorile, the Gays and Lesbians editor for the Huffington Post, “would likely be to infuse evangelical Christian doctrine into public schools.”

Signorile also calls Falwell Jr. an “enemy of LGBTQ rights” and states, “It’s hard to believe Falwell would continue the Obama administration’s pro-LGBTQ programs if he actually became Secretary of Education, nor would he likely take the job with any stipulation that he must so.”

Need more evidence that Trump will usher in an education agenda largely dominated by the evangelical community? Another candidate Trump also considered for Education Secretary was Larry Arnn.

The Hillsdale College Connection

As The Daily Caller reports, “Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College, a small conservative liberal arts school in Michigan known for declining all federal funds.”

Hillsdale College, located in Hillsdale, Michigan (the Devos family’s home state), is regarded as “the conservative Harvard,” in some circles, and has been the recipient of generous donations from numerous funders of the rightwing conservative movement including the Koch Brother’s family foundation. Hillsdale also sponsors the Rush Limbaugh Show.

Hillsdale students overwhelmingly supported Trump for president, according to the campus newspaper, and at least seven Hillsdale professors and administrators publicly endorsed him.

According to an article in The Atlantic, Hillsdale is one among a number of conservative private colleges that rejects federal funds including financial aid for students. Many of these colleges, while they are rejecting federal funds, “are seeking, exemptions from the US Department of Education from provisions under Title IX of the laws governing higher education, which protects students from discrimination in housing, athletics, and access to facilities on the basis of such things as gender, sexual orientation, sex or pregnancy outside marriage, or having an abortion.”

Hillsdale has a long-held reputation for discriminating on the basis of gender preference and identity, and news outlets in the LGBT community have reported incidents in which Hillsdale staff and officials openly discriminated against gay students.

Arnn also came under fire from many liberal sources for describing nonwhite students as “dark ones” during a state legislature subcommittee hearing regarding the adoption of Common Core State Standards. Hillsdale’s official apology for that incident was arguably worse than Arnn’s remark, a Michigan blogger notes, as the college used its apology as another opportunity to take a swipe at government enforcement of affirmative action policies.

In addition to Hillsdale’s strong resentment of federal intrusion, especially on issues of civil rights, the college also has deep commitments to another favorite of conservative, religious advocates: charter schools.

A Chain Of Religion-Based Charter Schools

As I report in an in-depth investigation of the conservative movement’s influence on charter school expansions in Colorado, in addition to reinforcing gender and race inequity, Hillsdale operates the Barney Charter School Initiative, which is essentially a consultant service for a chain of 16 charter schools called Classical Academies. These charters purport to offer “the same course of study that helped propel Western Civilization to the top of the world,” according to what at least one of these schools says on its website.

The Barney project’s strong political agenda was revealed in its former mission statement, since taken down, which said the Initiative seeks to “recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.” The statement also said, “The charter school vehicle possesses the conceptual elements that permit the launching of a significant campaign of classical school planting to redeem American public education.”

Charter schools created with the help of the Barney Initiative are also proving to be an ideal vehicle for evading laws enforcing separation of church and state. Since my investigation into the opening of a Barney-related charter in Colorado called Golden View Classical Academy, an independent news outlet in that state confirms the school indeed provides students a religion-based curriculum on the taxpayers’ dime.

As Marianne Goodland of The Colorado Independent reports, charter schools like Golden View “have found a legal workaround, and many Democratic and Republican lawmakers are looking the other way.”

Goodland recalls when Golden View applied to the district school board for approval, the school’s director “assured the board Golden View would not use a religious curriculum” and “agreed to comply with the intent of Colorado’s sexual education law by providing ‘appropriate instruction on human anatomy, reproduction and sexuality.'”

Yet, she notes the school’s family handbook, “adopted before the charter application was approved includes references to teaching about sexual intercourse only “in the context of a monogamous relationship between two people of opposite sexes,” a focus on abstinence, admonitions on “the moral and physical consequences of promiscuous sex,” and the “limited effectiveness” of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

Goodlad blames a loose, unregulated waiver process for allowing charter schools like Golden View to skirt state laws, and she points to Colorado public officials  who provide charters ample leeway to ensure they have the  “autonomy” which they claim justifies their existence.

Keep in mind, Barney-related charters like Golden View, that essentially function like private religious schools while receiving taxpayer money, are scattered across the country; their network is growing, and a Trump administration that has pledged to provide more money for “school choice” will only help fuel more rapid expansions of these schools.

“Neither the public nor lawmakers understand the extent of the problem,” Goodlad concludes.

How DeVos And Hillsdale Intersect

Unsurprisingly, Hillsdale president Arnn says Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, “is someone he ‘knows and admires,'” according to rightwing news outlet Breitbart.

And why not, since Hillsdale also has strong ties to DeVos and her immediate family.

As the Hillsdale campus newspaper reports, DeVos’s “roots in Michigan philanthropy run deep and also intersect with Hillsdale College. Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, a 1992 graduate of Hillsdale College and the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, now named Academi. In 2009, the DeVos family also founded ArtPrize, an international art competition that featured the work of five art professors and students this year. Most notably, Richard DeVos, Betsy DeVos’ father-in-law, co-founded Amway with Jay Van Andel. Van Andel’s son, Steve, was a 1978 graduate of Hillsdale and currently serves as the chairman of Amway. In 2013, after he donated to graduate school scholarships and operations, Hillsdale named it’s graduate school of statesmanship in his honor.”

Jay Van Andel was also, at the time of his death, a trustee of Hillsdale College, Wikipedia informs.

Most Extremist Administration Ever?

“Those who know DeVos say her goals are not sinister,” Politico reporters caution, “though they acknowledge the policies she’s likely to advance would benefit Christian schools. In fact, Trump’s $20 billion school choice program that would allow low-income students to select private or charter schools was devised with the help of the advocacy group DeVos headed until recently.”

Despite the strong evidence Trump’s education agenda may be driven by rightwing evangelicals, advocates for charter schools in the Democratic Party keep looking for reasons to believe Betsy DeVos is not going to be the extremist she is often being portrayed as in media reports.

On hearing the news of the DeVos nomination, the politically centrist hedge fund-backed Democrats for Education Reform released a statement congratulating DeVos on her appointment and applauding her “commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools,” while at the same time regretting that her nomination is the outcome of a political campaign driven by “bigoted and offensive rhetoric.” (Never mind the charter schools DeVos helped grow in Michigan seem less than “high quality.”)

Another centrist Democrat deeply embedded in the investment community, Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Partners, hopes a Trump administration will offer up a plan for charter school expansion that includes “sweeteners for the Congressional Black Caucus” – a condescending and white privilege phrase if there ever was one.

Emma Brown, the education reporter for the Washington Post, notes many advocates for charter schools “worry” Trump’s embrace of charter schools may be identified with his “rhetoric about immigrants, inner cities, and women,” but still hope some kind of “strong accountability” will be in the new administration’s charter school governance, even though those accountability measures have proven to be easily gamed by the savviest charter operators.

“Playing the politics of niceness has never been so convenient for the Dems of education reform,” writes college professor and former charter school leader-turned reform critic Andre Perry. “DeVos’s belief in limited state oversight, for-profit charter management, and vouchers didn’t give Democrat proponents of charter schools any pause in the past. And for many it doesn’t now.”

If Perry is correct, that’s a shame, because anyone who strives for a clear-eyed view of the Trump administration’s oncoming education agenda will find there is no evidence – zero – of anything other than the most extreme policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.

 

 

Principles To Guide The Vetting Of Betsy DeVos

President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos for US Secretary of Education in his administration set off a firestorm of commentary on what her impact might be on furthering “school choice” ventures like charter schools and vouchers that send taxpayer money to private enterprises.

In a much-circulated op-ed for the New York Times, economic professor Douglas Harris warns, “The DeVos nomination … should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.” Specifically, Harris points to Detroit – where DeVos has been hugely influential – as a worrisome example of how more choice does not necessarily always lead to more quality in a school system.

In a more expansive piece for the conservative education media site, Education Next, Harris, who generally supports charter schools, points to the “large negative effects” of the voucher programs in Michigan and the failure of charters to significantly improve student test scores in Detroit. He views these results as evidence of how uncontrolled choice risks harming students and perpetuating systemic failure. Even strong advocates for education reform “seem deeply concerned about Detroit,” he maintains.

“In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices,” writes Stephen Henderson, an editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. “What remains in short supply is quality.”

Henderson describes a “deeply dysfunctional educational landscape” in the Motor City, where charter schools operate, sometimes for decades, despite persistently low student-testing outcomes, and schools that are known for being higher quality still remain out of reach for most children. Detroit’s education malpractice, Henderson believes, has been brought about by “an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform … And at center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos.”

So whether you’re viewing the DeVos educational track record from afar, as Harris does, or up close, from the vantage point of a local journalist, the outcomes are concerning to say the least.

Those concerns are especially critical to consider given that DeVos, as journalists for Education Week explain, “would be the first person to head the department in its more than 35-year history who hasn’t either attended public schools or sent her own children to them.” She never taught in a K-12 school, or college, never led or helped operate a school or a university, “never served in a school system or state education agency, or oversaw public education as a governor, or governor’s education aide.”

Remarkably, were she to become Education Secretary, the job will require her to set foot in a public school for what is quite likely the first time in her life. So what expertise, other than her ideology, will she draw from to determine policy?

For years, proponents for what’s become known as “education reform” have argued that policy debates can be boiled down to the singular concern of, to use the grammatically fractured phrase coined by former president George W. Bush, “is our children learning.”

With a myopic focus on standardized test scores, these advocates frequently claim that expertise can derive from empirical analysis of testing data as the primary, sometimes only, basis for policy.

But if you care what happens to your tax dollars, you should be concerned about much more than just test score comparisons among different types of schools.

Some of those other concerns are illuminated in a new report, “Exploring the consequences of charter school expansion in U.S. cities” from the Economic Policy Institute. Written by Rutgers University professor and school finance expert Bruce Baker, the report examines systemic effects of charter schools, particularly their tendency to have adverse financial impacts on taxpayer-funded school districts in big cities.

Part of Baker’s rationale for compiling his study, according to an interview with Rachel Cohen for The American Prospect, grew out of his frustration with the “one-dimensional” argument for or against charters based solely on whether they produce “marginal increases or decreases in students’ standardized test scores.”

Some of those other dimensions include whether charters help ensure all students are served equitably in the system and whether charters promote more efficient use of public resources.

In his analysis of cities and school districts that have experienced the largest migrations of students from public schools to charters, including Detroit, Baker finds charter proliferation often produces a lot of financial inefficiency and inequity.

“Beyond issues of economies of scale,” Baker writes, inefficiencies arise “from the organization and delivery of educational programs to student transportation, increasing the likelihood of budgetary stress on the system as a whole, and the host government in particular.”

As charters expand, Baker finds, districts find themselves burdened with the costs of operating what is essentially two separate systems where there once was just one. Evidence of this growing inefficiency can be found in financial data showing that charter schools tend to spend higher proportions of funding on administration, and a lower percent on instruction, than public schools spend.

Another impact from rapid, unchecked charter expansions is that they can plummet school districts into deeper levels of debt, as the migrating students reduce funding levels for public schools but do nothing to reduce costs from “legacy debts” associated with the districts’ buildings, transportation systems, employee pensions and healthcare, and other fixed costs. This adverse effect of charters has been particularly prevalent in Michigan.

Another disturbing outcome from the expansion of school choice in Michigan and elsewhere, Baker argues, is the tendency of charters to “exacerbate[e] inequities across schools and children because children are being increasingly segregated by economic status, race, language, and disabilities.”

Baker finds, “Charter expansion may increase inequity, introduce inefficiencies and redundancies, compromise financial stability, and introduce other objectionable distortions to the system.”

As the vetting of Betsy DeVos goes forward, and as Trump plunges federal programs head long into expansions of charter schools and vouchers, Baker’s study urges policy makers to look beyond “facile” comparisons of testing data and consider what the impact charters and choice have on “the whole system, not just a subset of the system,” and whether student performance is both adequate and equitable rather than confined to just a chosen few students.

Baker also recommends policy leaders consider the impact of increased school choice on quality of life issues in the community including the effects on transportation and family disruptions.

“If the broad, long-term policy objective is to move toward the provision of a ‘system of great schools,'” Baker concludes, “then those systems must be responsibly, centrally managed to achieve an equitable distribution of excellent (or at the very least adequate) educational opportunities for all children.”

That’s a mighty big “if,” but it’s a principle we should insist the oncoming administration and its Education Secretary adhere to.

How Betsy DeVos May Complete The Big Money Takeover Of Our Nation’s Schools

Reactions to President-Elect Donald Trump’s announcement of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education have ranged from high praise, to wary acceptance, to immediate condemnation.

What few have noticed is how much her nomination represents business as usual in national education policy-making.

This is not to normalize extremism in politics and government because DeVos certainly has extreme views on a range of issues, as explained below.

But what DeVos represents in a very great sense is how rich people’s grip on the nation’s public education system has reached a choking point.

No doubt, education policy led by Trump and DeVos will differ from the previous administration, but what’s staying the same is how wealthy private interests will strongly influence policies.

Grasping this essential truth matters a lot in the “nasty” politics of education today, where the real debate is not so much about charters and choice as it is about who is in control.

Playgrounds For The Rich

In her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, education historian Diane Ravitch includes a chapter on “The Billionaire Boys Club” that documents how education policy has been the result of the ideological convergence of three wealthy foundations that spend the most money in K-12 education: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

In another account of the influence of big money on education policy, investigative journalist Joanne Barkan wrote in 2011, “Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money).” Like Ravitch, Barkan found “the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate” to be the most influential in imposing a “market-based” overhauling of public education to include choice and competition coming from charter schools, vouchers, or some combination thereof.

Since those observations, Ravitch updated the roster of the Billionaire Boys Club to include a “girl,” Betsy DeVos.

Of The Donor Class

The $4 billion Barkan traced to wealthy foundations might not sound like a lot of money in a $500 billion effort. But as she documents, spending focused on just the right levers can have a big effect.

Betsy DeVos knows where the levers are.

As Jane Mayer writes for The New Yorker, “It would be hard to find a better representative of the ‘donor class’ than DeVos,” and her husband Dick who inherited the Amway fortune. Betsy’s father Edgar Prince sold his auto-parts business for $1.35 billion, and her brother Erik founded Blackwater, the private military company that supplied mercenary soldiers to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As a recent article by L.S. Hall for Inside Philanthropy recounts, the DeVoses rank right up there with Charles and David Koch as “among the most influential conservative funders over recent decades, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an array of think tanks, legal groups, leadership institutes, and more.” In their home state of Michigan alone, they have given an estimated $44 million in political donations.

“Like today’s most savvy ideological funders on both left and right,” Hall continues, “the DeVos family has pulled all the levers of power afforded to the wealthy.”

Also, like other philanthropists, their favorite levers are often related to remaking K-12 education.

“DeVos’ efforts in recent years exemplify how top school donors have combined philanthropic and political giving to press their agenda,” writes Hall, an agenda of charter schools and more “choice” that is strikingly similar to the “reforms” advocated by the Walton, Gates, and Broad foundations.

The Revolving Door Stays In Tact

If you want to see the power wealthy foundations can have on the nation’s education policy, look at what they accomplished in the Obama administration.

As Arizona State University professors Sherman Dorn and Amanda Potterton write for Huffington Post, Arne Duncan, who presided over Obama’s education department for seven of eight years, “opened the federal agency’s gates to a powerful network” of private actors and powerful interests that included the Gates foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund, “a venture philanthropy firm that sponsors the growth of charter school chains.”

In both the people Duncan hired and the organizations he used to advance his policies, he relied on “private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders, and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations.”

The legacy of Duncan, Dorn and Potterton contend, is his reliance on private actors connected to wealthy foundations and businesses has led to an “ascendant Republican network [that has] used the reform rhetoric and regulatory momentum of Arne Duncan for its own ends.”

For sure, the “ends” these influential organizations have in mind are somewhat different.

For instance, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation might disagree about the role of vouchers in a choice agenda.

But what they all agree on is the means to policy-making. So what we’re likely to see in the next administration is the revolving door that sent personnel from the Gates Foundation and the Center for American Progress to the DoE will be re-populated instead with people coming from the Walton Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

The people may change, but the revolving door stays firmly in place.

Extremist In Charge

None of this is to ignore the level of extremism DeVos brings into education policy.

While DeVos synchs with what wealthy “reformers” want to do to schools, her opinions certainly diverge on other issues that affect education.

As Casey Quinlan of Think Progress, reports, DeVos “has a long record of supporting anti-LGBTQ causes,” including donating (along with her husband Dick DeVos) to “efforts to amend the Michigan constitution to ban same-sex marriage” and contributing “hundreds of thousands to Focus on the Family, a group that supports conversion therapy, which subjects LGBTQ “patients” to coercive “counseling” in an attempt to rid them of their “condition.”

Given this history, one has to wonder, as Quinlan does, how DeVos will regard anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students in our schools.

In addition to mixing her attitudes on gender into her policies, DeVos may stir in her religious views.

As Rebecca Klein reports for Huffington Post, when Dick DeVos ran for Michigan governor in 2006, he campaigned on schools having the option to teach intelligent design alongside evolution. Also, the DeVos foundation – which wife and husband operate together – has given money to “the Thomas More Law Center, a group that defended a school trying to teach intelligent design.”

There’s little doubt that Betsy DeVos’ religious views, as well as her free-market philosophy, motivate her strong support for education vouchers that enable parents to transfer their children to religious private schools at taxpayer expense.

In an in-depth piece for progressive news outlet Alternet, Rachel Tabachnick calls Betsy DeVos “the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement” and connects her to The Acton Institute, which according to Tabachnick, advocates religious control over government institutions, propagates advocacy for “Biblical Capitalism,” and supports the distribution of materials calling global warming a hoax.

Writing for the Center for Media and Democracy, Lisa Graves notes, the DeVoses, in public statements, have claimed their education efforts “focus on reforming public education and funding for private education because the ‘Lord led us there’ and ‘God led us.’

“‘Our desire,'” Graves continues to quote, “‘is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom … to impact our culture [in ways] that may have great Kingdom gain in the long-run.”

A Shift In The Overton Window

In the spectrum of views on education policy, what Betsy DeVos advocates can’t be regarded as anything other than an extreme swing to the right.

As Kristina Rizga writes for Mother Jones, what “DeVos-style school choice policies look like on the ground” in Michigan is a bizarre landscape where charters, most of them for-profit, operate with impunity across the state, replicating failure after failure, sending parents into a never-ending scramble to get their kids a quality education, and pushing public schools to the brink.

As Dave Gilson explains, also for Mother Jones, what DeVos espouses for education will likely shift the Overton Window – a term coined by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank which DeVos financially supports – on what’s acceptable to the public.

“While any discussion of eliminating public schooling may currently seem outrageous,” Gilson writes, “that could change” under a DeVos administration where public schools are disparaged as “government schools” and letting parents transfer their children to religious private schools at taxpayers’ expense is considered a “reform.”

The Most Radical Change Of All

However, in the long term, shifts in the Overton Window may be of much less concern than who is doing the shifting.

In the case of Trump’s nomination, substituting Betsy DeVos for Arne Duncan (current Secretary John King’s influence has been marginal) in many respects is less about a change in ideology than it is about changing the face of a status quo.

In this sense, arguing for or against charters and choice has in many ways become a distraction. Many communities already accommodate charter schools and eagerly embrace the idea of offering parents a range of choices, if the district can afford it. What pisses people off, though, is when private foundations force charter schools on their community and parents are told by powerful outsiders what kind of choices they have.

“We should worry, Dorn and Potterton write, “when policies are shaped substantially outside ordinary public politics by an increasingly private set of actors, whose relationships with the public sphere can simultaneously be rivalrous, symbiotic, and parasitic. One does not need to be paranoid to worry about the concentration of decision-making in the hands of people who are friends and who are not accountable to the general public.”

So whatever you think about who should be the next Education Secretary of the United States, and how extreme or mainstream their views should be, having someone not connected to big money would be the most radical change of all. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get that.

What Student Protests Tell Us About America Under Trump

While it may be President Obama’s job to ease the country through the change in leadership to a President Donald Trump administration, the rest of the country doesn’t have to go along with it. At least, that’s the message coming from a massive show of protest and resistance in cities and towns across the nation.

An outpouring of opposition coming from students in k-12 public schools and college campuses is especially significant.

Why? Public schools have long been at the frontline of many of the nation’s most significant battles.

Much for the class conflict that ignited during the Great Depression and spawned the New Deal was foretold by the challenges schools faced in educating the massive influx of poor, uneducated immigrant children into the country in the early decades of the 20th century.

In the 1950s and 60s, school desegregation was an epicenter in the Civil Rights Movement that produced landmark Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v Board of Education and Schwann v Charlotte-Mecklenberg.

Today, pubic schools – where non-white students outnumber their white peers and a majority live in poverty – are the nascent sign of the increasing diversity and inequality in the country. It’s no coincidence that the current Supreme Court case considering the rights of transgender individuals in public places arose from an incident in a public school.

So public schools, as long as they stay truly public, are often the first institutions to reflect society’s most important social trends. In this new era under a Trump regime, student protests are telling us something is very wrong.

What Students Are Saying

Student protests exploded as the reality of the election outcome sunk in the morning of November 9.

As The Intercept reports, that day, high school walkouts occurred across the country, with students leaving their classrooms en masse in Phoenix, Boulder, Seattle, and Des Moines, In one school in the Bay Area of Northern California, 1,500 students – half the school – took to the street to express their dissatisfaction with the election results.

“They’re angry … They’re crying and they feel unsafe,” explains the principal of that school to a local news reporter. Protests also occurred in Oakland, Contra Costa County, and San Jose.

As Education Week reports, student protests continued in many places through the rest of the week, from Omaha to Los Angeles where students in 16 schools walked out.

In Omaha, students chanted, “Not my President,” according to a local news source. “Most of us are 15, 16, 17 years old,” said one student. “We feel like we don’t have a say … By doing this, students have a voice.”

College students have joined in the protests as well with huge rallies in Austin, Texas, the University of Connecticut, and American University in Washington, DC, according to Politico.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt students staged a “Protest Against Hate” and walked out of class on Friday, a local news outlet reports. “Since the election, I think people have thought that they can come out of their shells and be blatant with their racism,” one of the protestors is quoted. “It’s been hurtful to me.”

“I came out here because as a black Muslim woman I feel like my identities are being attacked,” another protestor says. “[Since] the election I’ve seen a rise in hatred.”

Student protests continued into this week.

Hundreds of students in highs schools throughout Montgomery County, Maryland left schools and formed miles long protest marches that stopped traffic and slowed commerce in various communities. “We’re trying to show that young people have a voice and we want to be heard,” one of the protestors told a local reporter. “Although we can’t get represented through voting, we can get represented through protesting,” another said.

In Silver Springs, protesting students told the local reporter, “Donald Trump doesn’t represent our views … he represents bigotry in America,” “He doesn’t respect my mother and my sister,” and “I’m Hispanic and I don’t want him to be President. I don’t like the way he speaks about women. It’s not right.”

On the West Coast, student protests continued in Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area of California, and Los Angeles. In nearly every report, the protestors relate the same messages about Trump’s election leading to a rise in hate and division in the country and to widespread fear among families, friends, and communities.

Trump Has Brought Trauma To Schools

There is little doubt that Trumps’ campaign and subsequent election have brought trauma into public education at all levels.

“The country has elected a man who threaded racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic messages and mockery of disabled people through his campaign,” writes Emily Bazelon for the New York Times.. “Donald J. Trump’s victory gives others license to do the same,”

Bazelon, a Times staff writer and author of a highly regarded book on bullying explains that characteristics Trump targeted for insults and inflammatory rhetoric – being non-white, gay, or disabled – describe students who are most apt to be bullied and abused in schools. She cites numerous examples of harassment and racist displays in schools since the election.

An article for Mother Jones reports, “Bullying in schools is out of control since the election,” and cites examples of racist incidents and actions in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Oregon.

Each of these reports points to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that documents over 400 allegations, so far, of election-related intimidation and harassment nationwide.

“People from all types of communities ― black, Latino, Muslim, Jewish, Asian, queer people, women ― have been physically harmed, slandered with hate speech or been the targets of racist graffiti,” explains a review of the SPLC report at Huffington Post.

“In the days following the election, students are already invoking the name of our president-elect while they spread white supremacist messages,” writes Casey Quinlan, the education reporter for Think Progress, the action center for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

A wave of racist incidents has hit several college campuses as well, reports Politico, citing a specific example in which an Oklahoma student taunted black students from Pennsylvania with violent, racist messages. The fact Trump made “political correctness” a target for his ire and vowed to attack policies seeking to curb bigoted rhetoric has set campuses and college administrators on edge.

According to a report in the New York Times, Trump supporters at Texas State University distributed a flier on campus declaring, “Now that our man Trump is elected … Time to organize tar and feather vigilante squads.”

Other incidents in the article include, a Muslim woman student in San Jose State University who was grabbed by her hijab and choked, and at all-female Wellesley College, “male students from Babson College drove through campus in a pickup truck adorned with a large Trump flag, parked outside a meeting house for black students, and spat at a black female student.”

In addition to hyping up race- and gender-based harassment and abuse, Trump’s campaign rhetoric about immigrants has put many students into fear of being deported or having members of their families abducted by the state.

An article from the state-based Chalkbeat news service reports, “In the wake of a campaign in which Trump talked about ramping up deportations, building walls, and banning Muslims from entering the country, teachers at schools that serve immigrants and their families faced intensely personal questions. Will I be forced to leave? Will my parents?”

Another fear among student and civil rights advocates is that efforts to discontinue harsh “zero tolerance” behavior policies in schools and to end a “school to prison pipeline” that pushes students into the criminal justice system will be curtailed under a government regime that emphasizes “law and order,” as Trump has vowed to do.

How Educators Are Responding

A recent report by PBS News Hour describes some of the steps educators are taking to deal with “the Trump effect” in their schools.

The reporter Kavitha Cardoza notes teachers “are not surprised at all that some of these emotions are spilling into the classroom” because schools are often “microcosms” of society and children tend to absorb whatever is stressing their parents.

“I think it must be so terrifying to be a kid,” a teacher tells a reporter for The Hechinger Report. “To feel like you have no power and these ‘other’ adult strangers are making decisions that could rip away family members. Kids know what racism is and are struggling to understand why and how people in this country could make a leader out of an open racist.”

In numerous interviews, teachers explain steps they are taking to deal with the stress and heightened tension in their classrooms, including teaching students about respect for others and the value of community. Teachers are making a concerted effort to provide students with a calm oasis and to help students with their emotions.

This kind of extra-curricular support is especially important in programs serving high populations of students who don’t speak English as their first language. As a recent report for the Education Writers Association explains, “Many school districts have begun offering additional counseling and support services for students who fear for their futures under the next presidential administration.”

College campuses are taking steps as well. According to the campus newspaper at the University of North Carolina, faculty are going outside their usual curriculums to deal with traumatized college students. “I had half a dozen students crying in class,” one professor explains. “I had never in my life seen something like this.”

“We are going to find a way to support these students,” another professor says. “We will stand with them. We’ll make sure that they are safe.”

A teacher-blogger at Education Week explains why teachers are being thrust into the forefront of addressing the social stress that Trump is fomenting in society. “I don’t strongly support particular candidates in my classroom. That doesn’t feel like my place,” she writes. “Teaching, though, is inherently political. We ask our students to think critically, to question existing systems, to imagine what might be better. We push for them to consider who has power, why, and how we can change those existing and often oppressing structures.”

Further, research shows that learning is stunted when the most basic need to feel safe and respected is not met. Teachers simply can’t do their jobs without addressing the underlying stress and emotions of their students.

We Should Listen To Them

None of this is to say that the Trump administration isn’t legitimate.

He did win the presidency, despite not winning the popular vote. He has told his supporters who are spreading hatred to “stop it.”. And his former campaign manager and current advisor has called on President Obama to speak out against the protests.

But student protests are legitimate too. They’re telling us it’s time for bold stands, not wait-and-see equivocations in the face of rising hatred and discrimination in the nation. We should listen to them.

Education Victories Democrats Can Rally Around

Sorting through this week’s humiliating defeat by Donald Trump at the polls, Democrats are having a hard time finding any bright spots in all the darkness. But Trump’s victory was a very close one (he lost the popular vote) and may be easy to reverse in 2020 with a better campaign.

So amidst the dead ashes of defeat, where are the red-hot coals that may spark new fire in the populist rebellion that represents the party’s only hope?

Some of that promising tinder can be found in communities that voted on Tuesday against the private takeover of their public schools.

First, in Massachusetts, voters rejected a referendum called Question 2 that would have forced the expansion of charter schools in the state. Charter schools, which receive taxpayer money but are privately operated, have come to represent another example of the creeping privatization blob rapidly absorbing public infrastructure – transportation, schools, sanitation, prisons, and other essential services – into business pursuits for the wealthy.

As the New York Times reports, voters, “easily turned aside a $26 million effort to increase the number of charter schools” in the state and delivered a victory for public education, a cornerstone of American democracy.

Public school advocate Jennifer Berkshire – a colleague of mine at The Progressive and a Boston resident – points out at her that blog Question 2 was generally an effort by “rich, entitled assholes from New York” to tell Massachusetts voters what’s best for their children. Bay State folks would have none of it.

Opposition to Question 2 came from far and wide, especially from the progressive community, including political icons Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who opposed the charter expansion.

As Berkshire explains, “The coalition extended well beyond the teachers unions that funded it, growing to include members of all kinds of unions, as well as social justice and civil rights groups, who fanned out across the state every weekend. By election day, the sprawling network of mostly volunteer canvassers had made contact with more than 1.5 million voters.”

Opposition came from nearly every kind of community in the state – urban, suburban, and rural – except for the very wealthiest and whitest counties.

Reacting to the vote tally coming in against Question 2, education historian Diane Ravitch writes on her personal blog, “On a sad night for the nation, it is heartening to see that the people defended their public schools … and won.”

In Georgia, another progressive victory for public schools shone bright through the cloud of misery up-ballot.

In that state, conservatives led by Republican Governor Nathan Deal had placed a referendum on the ballot, called Amendment 1, that would install a state agency to take over the lowest performing schools in the state and hand them over to private management groups that operate charter schools. Again, money from charter school proponents, such as members of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and dark money groups, poured into the state to pass the referendum, while teachers unions and public school advocacy groups supported a local opposition made up of labor groups, progressives, community organizers, and black clergy.

Opposition to the charter takeover agency was widespread, with six out of ten voters opposing the bill, according to an Atlanta news outlet, with no votes coming from both Republicans and Democrats. What “galvanized opposition,” according to the reporter was widespread resistance to handing” local operations to for-profit charter school companies.”

The fact that people generally want some say in where and how they can access their schools should surprise no one, but advocates for privatizing the system with charter schools keep missing the point.

In the state of Washington, the threat to public schools appeared on the ballot in the form of a race for state Supreme Court.

Charter proponents – such as Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and other major contributors to previous attempts to force charters on the state – spent at least $500,000 in an effort to unseat current judges who upheld lower court decisions ruling the method for funding charters in the state unconstitutional. The court had also ruled that the state legislature was not adequately funding schools and had levied a fine of $100,000 a day against the lawmaking body

The judge who wrote the court’s charter school decision Justice Barbara Madsen was the primary target of charter advocates, notes Ravitch in another post on her blog. Madsen won reelection by 64 percent, according to a state news source, the largest margin of victory of the three incumbent candidates.

In Montana, charter school advocates had targeted Democratic Governor Steve Bullock for defeat. Bullock had the temerity to express, according to a state-based news outlet, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer. Anyone who says public schools have failed isn’t seeing what’s happening.”

His Republican opponent, who had become rich from selling off his high-tech startup, was the founder of a private school and an advocate for “school choice” that encourages parents to withdraw their children from public school at taxpayer expense.

Bullock received the endorsement of the Network for Public Education, a public school advocacy group Ravitch helped found, for his “strong, support for public education and democratically governed schools.”

NPE’s endorsement quotes Bullock saying although he supports schools being able to apply for “public charter” status, which would provide more “flexibility to innovate and implement new strategies,” governance of schools must remain under the purview of the locally-elected school board and the state education agency. “Public resources should be used to support our outstanding public schools,” he states.

Bullock won in a tight race, but it was a victory nevertheless, and a win for public education.

The ascendancy of public education as an important progressive cause was prevalent in state and local elections around the country – in races for state board of education in Nebraska, in school board elections in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Detroit.

Of course, support for public education did not win everywhere. There were bad outcomes in state legislative races in California and New York.

Trump has expressed his strong dislike for public schools – calling them “government schools” and a “failed monopoly” – and proposed during his campaign a $20 billion federal block grant to allow states to give vouchers to low-income students to attend whatever school they want. With Trump’s election, school choice and charter advocates now have their strongest proponent in charge of federal policy.

And among establishment Democrats, support for charter schools remains firm. In an astonishing feat of rhetoric, some of these centrist-minded Democrats who support charter schools are conflating Trump’s win with the victories for public education in Massachusetts and Georgia, saying the starkly dissimilar events were somehow equally bad for “kids.”

As these out-of-touch Democrats celebrate the defeats of progressives such as Zephyr Teachout – who campaigned for good public schools and well paying jobs but lost to a charter school advocate backed by Wall Street – we need to remind them that it was establishment Democrats who handed this election to a rightwing populist, void of decency and respect for others and mobilized by hate and division.

These sell-outs to the big money behind “reforms” such as “free trade,” “right to work,” and “school choice” are the ones who are complicit in this defeat. And it’s time progressive Democrats took their party back. Public school advocates in Massachusetts and Georgia just showed us how to do that.