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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So far, the department hasn’t replied.

DeVos’s Pencil Privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Refuge on the Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological Warfare?

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

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

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

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

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

Progressives Lost The Vote On DeVos But Won Something Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Build On ‘The Perfect Storm’

Public education advocates have long been exasperated with progressives.

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

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

Well, consider them awake.

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

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

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

Turn Education Into A Wedge Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press For Positive Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not A Time For Compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian-Based ‘Critical Thinking’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biofeedback Cures With Biblical Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why DeVos’s Views On Science Matter

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

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

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

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

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

What Would You Do?

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

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

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

What would you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These lawmakers have good reasons for their concerns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voucher programs are also drawing the ire of rural communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone should ask them that.

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.