Federal Opinion

California Should Fight Betsy DeVos’ Politics of Privatization

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — November 29, 2016 4 min read
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The nomination of billionaire charter and voucher advocate Betsy DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education has set off alarm bells in the education establishment. It should.

DeVos’ sole experience with public education has been opposing it and attempting to deprive public schools of funds while supporting both vouchers and unregulated charter schools.

She will be heading the department that distributes $15-billion in Title I funds to schools of poor children. Donald J. Trump, the president-elect who appointed her, has advocated raiding these funds in order to establish a $20-billion federal voucher fund, thus creating a direct transfer from public to private.

While Trump’s plan is unlikely to pass muster with Congress, which will probably be reluctant to undo its just completed bipartisan effort to enact the long overdue revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, DeVos is still a clear and present danger to public education. (See Aaron Pallas’ scenarios in The Hechinger Report.)

As a Wall Street Journal editorial illustrates, her nomination is part of a larger agenda to privatize schooling. It gleefully points to public school and union drubbing throughout the country. The American Federation for Children, which DeVos chairs, says it was successful in 108 of the 121 races where it supported candidates. It then noted, “One of Mrs. DeVos’s tasks will be leveraging her bully pulpit and federal dollars to extend this progress to the states, where most education money is spent.”

DeVos’ nomination will fuel the growing charter school war in California. In response to a local backlash against charters, particularly in Los Angeles, pro-charter groups spent $17-million in “independent expenditures” on 2016 state legislative races, a KPCC public radio analysis showed. “Backed by donors like L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and Gap founder Doris Fisher, these pro-charter groups’ outside spending has even surpassed traditional heavyweights in California politics: groups backed by the energy industry, real estate developers or organized labor,” the KPPC report said.

Charter backers have heavily supported Tim Grayson who defeated Mae Torlakson, wife of the state school superintendent, for an East Bay seat in the Assembly. They also helped elect Anna Caballero and Raul Bocanegra.

DeVos’ selection will heighten the “public schools suck” rhetoric. “Traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts,” DeVos said several years ago.

Predictably, union leaders have viewed DeVos’ nomination with alarm. The California Federation of Teachers said in an email, “We are deeply disappointed but not surprised by the selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. The Trump administration is making clear from the outset that it wants to privatize public schools, with less transparency and little accountability.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, called Ms. DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” since the secretary of education was elevated to the cabinet level four decades ago. Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, issued a statement saying, “by nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.”

More surprising is a scathing denunciation by Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University and head of a research institute tracking New Orleans’ reforms. He supports charters and has become the interpreter-in-chief of that city’s experiment with a virtually all-charter system.

The operative word is system. A decade of experience has shown that what Harris calls “wild west” unregulated charters fail to perform. Both a system that coordinates them and state regulation that disciplines them are key to what Harris considers a successful use of the charter concept.

But DeVos and her husband—their wealth estimated at $5.1-billion—are power brokers in Michigan, heavy donors to the Republican Party, and opponents of charter regulation. “As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country,” Harris said in a New York Times opinion piece.

On national tests, Detroit’s charters come in among the worst of the worst.

The Louisiana experience also repudiates DeVos’ advocacy for vouchers. Where students in the New Orleans charters improved on state test scores and other measures, those in the state’s unregulated voucher program did worse.

Harris concludes, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”

California’s senators should lobby their colleagues not to confirm DeVos’ appointment.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.